M’s McClendon plays a hunch, puts Saunders in leadoff role

SEATTLE — For game 23, on a whim, the Seattle Mariners rolled out a new look at the top of their lineup when Michael Saunders served as the leadoff hitter.

Abraham Almonte filled that role for each of the first 22 games. He dropped to second Saturday when the Mariners continued their weekend series against the Texas Rangers at Safeco Field.

“Just tinkering,” manager Lloyd McClendon said. “Trying to get better. That’s all. On a whim. Just followed my gut. Just sat down, made out a lineup and said, ‘I’m going to lead Saunders off, and hit (Almonte) second.’”

The move comes with center fielder Almonte batting just .215 and carrying a .263 on-base percentage. Saunders entered the night with a .176 average (6-for-36) and a .237 OBP.

“Look, I don’t have any magic answers,” McClendon said. “I’m just searching. I’m trying to spark the offense.”

The hunch work initially. Saunders opened the first inning with a homer. That helped the Mariners build a three-run lead before the Rangers rallied for a 6-3 victory.

Saunders started only seven of the club’s previous 22 games and has struggled, at times, to adjust to duty as a backup outfielder.

“I’ve embraced the role,” he said. “It’s not something I want to be in. It will take some work to get out of it. But I’ve embraced it, and I’m trying to do the best I can with it.”

McClendon said Saunders’ stay as leadoff hitter might be a one-day move.

Or it might not.

“I’ve always said, ‘Managers don’t make out the lineup,’” McClendon said. “‘Players do.’ If (Saunders) gets three knocks, there’s a pretty (darn) good chance he’ll be hitting leadoff (Sunday).”

Asked who made out Saturday’s lineup, McClendon laughed: “I’m not sure. I think it was the third scotch. So, I don’t know.”

Jokes aside, it’s not a new role for Saunders; he started 28 previous games as the leadoff hitter in his six seasons, but he hasn’t done it in nearly 11 months: June 2, 2013 at Minnesota.

Saunders’ track record is spotty in the role: a .232/.298/.336 slash (batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage) over 124 plate appearances with three doubles, four homers and 10 RBI.

But for one day, at least, the job is his.

“Tomorrow?” McClendon parried. “I don’t know about tomorrow. I know about today. Heck, tomorrow, he might be hitting fourth. You never know. Then you’ll really say I’m crazy.”

Iwakuma’s tune-up

All-Star righty Hisashi Iwakuma is slotted for five innings and 80 pitches today for Class AAA Tacoma at Las Vegas in what the Mariners hope will be his only rehab start before rejoining the rotation.

Iwakuma, 33, is recovering from a strained ligament in his middle finger, which was diagnosed in early February and prevented him from pitching in spring training. He was 14-6 last season with a 2.66 ERA in 33 starts.

If all goes well, Iwakuma will start May 2 when the Mariners open a three-game series at Houston.

Right-hander Erasmo Ramirez will start today for Class Hi-A High Desert in his first outing since losing his spot in the big-league rotation. Plans call for him to be moved to Tacoma, to replace Iwakuma, for his next start.

Ramirez opened the season by working seven strong innings in a victory over the Angels before yielding 16 runs and 21 hits over 17 innings in his next four starts.

Long rope

Wondering how long the rope is on veteran closer Fernando Rodney after Friday’s narrow escape? McClendon has an easy answer: “Until he doesn’t have a lead anymore.”

Rodney inherited a three-run lead Friday to start the ninth inning, but the Rangers scored twice and had the bases loaded with one out before first baseman Justin Smoak’s unassisted double play preserved a 6-5 victory.

“Look, he’s out there for a reason,” McClendon said, “and he got the job done. It didn’t look pretty, but he got the job done.”

Short hops

Corey Hart was back in the lineup Saturday, one day after being hit in the knee by a pitch from Rangers reliever Neal Cotts in the eighth inning. “I think it caught the (knee) pad,” McClendon said. “That really saved him.”

Hart missed all of last season while recovering from surgery on both knees.

Sunday is “Salute to Kids Day.” Everyone aged 14 and younger will receive a Robinson Cano T-shirt, courtesy of Boeing. … With outfielders Stefen Romero and Cole Gillespie, the Mariners have two of the five Oregon State alums currently in the big leagues. The others are Rangers outfielder Daniel Robertson, Cubs infielder Darwin Barney and Yankees outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury. … Through 10 home games, entering Saturday, no Mariners starter has allowed more than three earned runs. …The Mariners had been outscored this season 18-0 in the eighth inning before Friday, when they scored four in the eighth in a 6-5 victory over the Rangers. … Four Mariners were hit by a pitch in Friday’s victory, which matched a franchise record. It has happened on three other occasions.

Looking back

It was two years ago Sunday — April 27, 2012 — that Saunders had perhaps the best game of his six-year career by hitting two homers, including a grand slam, in a 9-5 victory at Toronto.

Saunders had a solo homer in the ninth that helped the Mariners erase a two-run deficit and hit his slam in the 10th. It was the first slam of his career.

Only two other players in Mariners’ history have hit two homers after the eighth inning in a game. Both also were in the ninth and 10th innings, and occurred at the Kingdome:

Donnie Scott did it on April 29, 1985 in a 9-7 victory over Milwaukee; and Jim Presley did it on April 8, 1986 in an 8-4 victory over the Angels in the season opener.

On tap

The Mariners conclude their six-game homestand today with the last of three weekend games against Texas at 1:10 p.m. at Safeco Field.

Right-hander Brandon Maurer (0-0 with a 2.08 ERA) will make his second start since returning from Class AAA Tacoma. Texas plans to start lefty Matt Harrison, who is making his 2014 debut.

Harrison hasn’t pitched in the majors since April 6, 2013 because of a back injury that required two surgeries. He was 18-11 with a 3.29 ERA in 32 starts in 2012.

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