SEATTLE — It wasn’t only right-hander Felix Hernandez who returned Wednesday to active duty with the Mariners.
A new-look roster also included catcher Mike Zunino and outfielder Nori Aoki, who were each recalled from Triple-A Tacoma prior to the series finale against the Chicago White Sox at Safeco Field.
The Mariners cleared space for the three additions by optioning reliever David Rollins, catcher Jesus Sucre and outfielder Daniel Robertson to the Rainiers.
Zunino, 25, made a brief return earlier in the month after an injury sidelined Steve Clevenger. The Mariners sent Zunino back to Tacoma just prior to the All-Star break in order to get regular at-bats.
But if all goes as expected, Zunino is now back for the duration, and he figures to split playing time with slumping veteran Chris Iannetta over the final two-plus months.
"He’s going to get a chance to play a little bit," manager Scott Servais said. We’re going to mix and match him and Chris. It will be more than once-or-twice-a-week scenario going forward."
Zunino batted .286 in 79 games at Tacoma with 17 homers and 57 RBIs. He went 2-for-7 with two homers over two games in his brief previous big-league stay. More important, he shows signs of cutting down his strikeouts.
"We’ve seen him do a little better job of controlling the strike zone," Servais said. "I think he’s handling situational hitting a little bit better. I think some of the pressure has been taken off."
Zunino went 1-for-4 with a two-run homer in Wednesday’s 6-5 victory over the White Sox in 11 innings.
Aoki, 34, opened the season as the Mariners’ left fielder and leadoff hitter after signing a one-year deal last December that includes a vesting option for 2017. But he batted just .245 with a .323 on-base percentage in 67 games.
Those totals were 42 and 40 points below his career averages and prompted a June 24 demotion to Tacoma. where he batted .369 with a .440 on-base percentage in 16 games.
"Nori has been great," Servais said. "He did everything we asked him to do when he went down there. It’s hard for a veteran player to do that, but he worked his tail off. He’s a big-league player. We’ve just got to get him back (to previous form)."
Initially, anyway, Aoki figures to serve as a platoon player and only start games against right-handed pitchers — as he did Wednesday against Chicago’s Miguel Gonzalez. Aoki went 1-for-4 with a walk.
Hernandez made his first start Wednesday since May 27 after being activated from the disabled list.
The Mariners, officially, optioned Rollins, Sucre and Robertson to Tacoma after Tuesday’s 6-1 loss to the White Sox but did not announce the moves until early Wednesday. Each returns to the Rainiers after brief big-league stays.
Rollins, 26, spent much of the last month shuttling between Tacoma and the Mariners. He got his first major-league victory Tuesday when the Mariners to beat the White Sox. He has a 4.05 ERA in 6 2/3 innings over eight appearances.
The Mariners recalled Sucre on July 6 when they sent Zunino back to the Rainiers. Sucre, 28, was 1-for-8 in three games.
Robertson, 30, arrived July 5 from the Rainiers, where he batted .262 with a .327 OBP in 73 games. He was 5-for-19 over nine games for the Mariners.
LEWIS OUT FOR THE YEAR
Short-A Everett center fielder Kyle Lewis, the Mariners’ top pick last month in the MLB draft, will miss the rest of the season and possibly longer because of a major knee injury suffered Tuesday on a play at the plate.
"It’s a heartbreaking (injury) for a guy who just signed and was having the year of his life," general manager Jerry Dipoto said. "Winner of the Golden Spikes (as college baseball’s top player), and he was off to a tremendous start (at Everett)."
The Mariners say Lewis, 21, suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament as well as a torn medial and lateral meniscus in his right knee.
Lewis was batting .299 (35-for-117) in 30 games at Everett with 26 runs, eight doubles, five triples, three home runs and 26 RBIs. He also had a .915 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage).
"He was giving us every reason to believe he was exactly the player we thought we were drafting," Dipoto said. "Now, we’re going to have to give him a little time down."
MARTE AILING, SARDINAS RETURNING
With shortstop Ketel Marte recovering slower than expected from a a viral infection, the Mariners plan to recall utility infielder Luis Sardinas prior to Friday’s series opener at Toronto.
Marte missed his third straight game in Wednesday’s 6-5 victory over the White Sox, which again left the Mariners with no backup middle infielders. He did not travel Wednesday with the club to Toronto.
"He’s lost some weight, too," Servais said, "and that’s a concerning thing. His tonsils are really swollen. He is on antibiotics, and I hope that kicks in. But he is not feeling good.
Shawn O’Malley started again Wednesday at shortstop.
Sardinas, 23, opened this season on the big-league roster but batted just .190 in 25 games. He was batting .250 in 42 games at Tacoma.
Right-hander Taijuan Walker is tentatively slotted to throw a simulated game Wednesday in Pittsburgh in his recovery from tendinitis in his right foot.
Walker hasn’t pitched since July 5 and wore a walking boot for a week before shedding it last weekend. If he experiences no problem in the simulated game, he is likely to make at least one minor-league rehab start.
That timetable could position Walker to rejoin the rotation by the second week in August. He was 4-7 with a 3.66 ERA in 14 starts prior to being placed on the disabled list.
***Reliever Nick Vincent, like Walker, will accompany the club on its road trip as he works to recover from a strained muscle in his middle back. That suggests the Mariners believe he could return to duty in early August.
Vincent hasn’t pitched since June 26. He was 2-3 with a 3.47 ERA in 35 games prior to the injury.
While the Mariners continue to hover around .500, their minor-league affiliates are on a roll.
Entering Wednesday, six of the club’s seven affiliates were either in first place or tied for first place in their league. The only exception, Double-A Jackson, won its first-half division crown by 10 games.
Records through Tuesday (second half for all full-season clubs except Triple-A):
Tacoma (55-40-1, plus-4 1/2 games); Jackson (12-12, minus-2 1/2); Hi-A Bakersfield (18-8, plus-7); Lo-A Clinton (19-6, plus-4); Short-A Everett (16-16, tied); Rookie Peoria (12-11, plus-1) and Dominican Academy (25-12, plus-1).
It was 28 years ago Thursday — July 21, 1988 — that the Mariners traded first baseman Ken Phelps to the New York Yankees for outfielder Jay Buhner and two minor-league pitchers (Rick Balabon and Troy Evers).
Buhner had played 32 games for the Yankees over parts of two seasons while batting .198 with three homers and 14 RBIs. He played 14 years for the Mariners and was inducted into their Hall of Fame in 2004.
The Mariners have an open date Thursday before opening an eight-game trip that span three cities Friday with the first of three weekend games against the Toronto Blue Jays at the Rogers Centre.
Lefty James Paxton (2-4 with a 4.56 ERA) will face Toronto right-hander Marco Estrada (5-3, 2.93) at 4:07 p.m. Pacific time Friday in the series opener.
The road trip also includes two games at Pittsburgh and three against the Cubs in Chicago, where the series finale will mark the Mariners’ first appearance on ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball since 2006.
Bob Dutton: @TNT_Mariners