Mariners sent struggling Almonte back to the bench

HOUSTON — Struggling outfielder Abraham Almonte dodged a possible demotion Saturday when the Seattle Mariners had to clear roster space to accommodate starting pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma’s return from the disabled list.

The Mariners chose to option reliever Lucas Luetge to Class AAA Tacoma despite using six relievers in Friday’s 11-inning 5-4 loss to the Astros. Iwakuma started Saturday’s game at Minute Maid Park.

“Our bullpen is fine,” manager Lloyd McClendon said in explaining the move prior to Saturday’s game. “Nobody was really over-taxed. In fact, they needed work.”

While Almonte held his roster spot, he returned to the bench after going hitless in three at-bats Friday dropped his average below at Mendoza Line at .198 with a .248 on-base percentage.

Almonte also leads the majors with 40 strikeouts (in 106 at-bats).

Those difficulties, he believes, can be traced to his batting stance; specifically head movement on his swing.

“I just keep working hard and keep believing I can do it,” he said. “That’s all I can do. I just believe every at-bat, every chance I get, that I’m going to prove I can do it.”

So far, though, the results keep trending down. Almonte entered Saturday with four hits in his past 37 at-bats. Even worse, perhaps, his defense shows slippage: He had two errors in Friday’s loss.

“That’s why he’s sitting,” McClendon said. “Because it’s not working. It’s that simple. I don’t try to sugarcoat anything. He’s not playing because he’s not producing. He’s not playing up to his capabilities.

“There are two ways you can do it. You can play him, or you can bench him.”

It also begs the question: How long can the Mariners continue to carry Almonte on their roster? At what point does a remedial tour at Tacoma become a better option?

“I don’t know what that point is,” McClendon said. “When I know, you guys will know.”

The primary factor against demoting Almonte is finding a viable alternative in center field. Club officials believe Michael Saunders, who started Saturday in center, fits best as a corner outfielder.

Saunders is making a case, though. He went 2-for-5 in Saturday’s victory; and with six hits in 13 at-bats over the last three games, his average is up to .250.

The other primary possibility is James Jones, who is batting .313 in 20 games at Tacoma. He got a brief look last month when the schedule permitted the Mariners to carry just four starting pitchers.

Jones has only limited experience above Class AA, but he is 25 and flashed potential in an extended look in spring training. McClendon believes Jones projects as a leadoff hitter and could be an impact defensive player.

“I like him,” he said when Jones was optioned to Tacoma on April 19. “I said this before, I don’t think he’s going to knock on the door. I think he’s going to tear the door down when he’s ready.”

Iwakuma sharp

Iwakuma pitched far better than indicated by his final line of four runs in 62/3 innings. He had allowed just two runs and four hits over the first six innings and 56 of his 81 pitches for strikes.

“Kuma looked like the Kuma of old,” catcher Mike Zunino said. “Right off the bat. I know (he thinks) he’s still ironing out some stuff, but I thought his breaking ball and his split were great today.”

Iwakuma gave up a homer in the seventh to Chris Carter before departing after Marwin Gonzalez’s two-out single. That single turned into a run when reliever Dominic Leone gave up a two-run homer to Jonathan Villar.

“I feel relieved right now,” Iwakuma admitted through translator Antony Suzuki. “I was very excited before the game, but I was able to focus during the whole course of the game. I was able to pitch my game.”

Iwakuma extended his scoreless streak, dating back to last season, to 25 innings before yielding two runs in the third. That is the fifth-longest streak in club history.

The last Mariner to work at least 25 scoreless innings was reliever Shigetoshi Hasegawa, who went 282/3 innings from June 3 to Aug. 17, 2003.

That crazy eight

The Mariners’ eight-run seventh was their biggest one-inning output since they scored eight in successive innings — the second and third — in a 21-8 victory over the Rangers on May 30, 2012 at Texas.

Their best previous 2014 inning was six runs on three occasions. The most recent was April 17 in the third inning of an 8-6 loss at Texas.

Mac on bunts

Few strategies create greater public debate than whether bunting, in general, is an effective offensive strategy. Saunders put down a leadoff bunt Friday in the sixth that led to a two-run inning.

McClendon on bunting: “Bunting is nice. I need guys to drive in runs. Hit a three-run homer. When you outscore the other team, you win. Not bunts. That’s all part of it, but I need runs.”

Saunders opened the game Saturday by bunting; he was thrown out by the pitcher.

Short hops

McClendon’s ejection was the 24th of his career, his 19th as a manager and his first with the Mariners. … Iwakuma is the eighth starting pitcher used this season (in 26 games) by the Mariners. Only the Rangers and White Sox, with nine, have used more. … Robinson Cano has reached base safely at least once in each of his 16 career games against the Astros. … Justin Smoak scored twice and had two RBI in the seventh inning. The last Mariner to have two runs and two RBI in an inning was Jesus Montero in the second inning on May 30, 2012 at Texas.

Looking back

It was 22 years ago Saturday — May 3, 1992 — that Edgar Martinez tied a club record by hitting two triples in a game. (Yes, read that again: Edgar.)

It still wasn’t enough.

The Mariners lost 8-6 to Baltimore.

A Mariner has hit two triples in a game on 12 occasions, but it’s been more than a decade since it happened. The last time was Carlos Guillen on May 9, 2003 against the White Sox at Safeco Field. The M’s won that game 6-3.

On tap

The Mariners conclude their three-game stay at Minute Maid Park with an 11:10 a.m. Pacific time game today against the Astros.

Right-hander Brandon Maurer (0-0 with a 6.75 ERA) will start against Houston right-hander Collin McHugh (2-0 and 0.59). The Mariners then head to Oakland for four games.

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