M’s Lowe is finding his groove

Mariners relief pitcher Mark Lowe began the 2010 season with an important goal — to keep his pitch count to 15 or less per inning.

He remembered a conversation last year with head trainer Rick Griffin, who emphasized the importance of a low pitch count and the effect it can have over a long season.

“He mentioned how (former closer Kazuhiro) Sasaki would get upset if he threw more than 15 because he knew how he was going to feel it the next day,” Lowe said at spring training. “There’s a big difference between 10 and 17 or 18 pitches on your body the next day. I incorporated that probably the last half of the season and my pitch count dropped tremendously just with that focus.”

After six outings this season, Lowe is close to that 15-pitch target. He’s averaging 16.8 pitches per inning, including his best outing to date on Tuesday when he mowed down the Orioles on seven pitches in the eighth inning.

“That was where I want to be,” Lowe said.

Lowe hasn’t experienced a marathon inning this year — his pitch-count high was 21 in 2/3 inning April 7 in the second game of the season at Oakland — but he has steadily gotten more efficient with his pitches.

“When you get here, the strike zone tightens up a little bit and you don’t get a lot of the calls you get in spring training, so it’s a little different,” he said. “Switching from mostly day games to mostly night games, the travel and everything, it’s a whole new ballgame and we’re finally starting to adjust to where we want to be.”

It’s not just the pitchers who have adjusted.

The Mariners turned their 2-5 record around with a 7-2 homestand that landed them into a tie for first in the American League West with Oakland after their series sweep of Baltimore. The Mariners now are 1/2 game out after the A’s beat the Yankees on Thursday.

“It takes longer than a week to adjust,” Lowe said. “You open on the road and things are different from spring training. Then you get home and everybody gets moved into their homes, and there’s an adjustment with that. Then you can take a deep breath and get settled in for the rest of the year.”

Catcher on the run

Catcher Rob Johnson, who had surgery on both hips in the offseason, predicted late in spring training that he would steal some bases this year.

He noted that it wasn’t long ago when he stole 14 bases for the Tacoma Rainiers. That was 2006, “and then catching took its toll,” Johnson said.

Wednesday night, Johnson stole his first base of the season to give him three as a major leaguer.

That steal, in the third inning against Orioles pitcher Kevin Millwood and catcher Matt Wieters, didn’t happen without a little drama. After his head-first slide into second base, Johnson needed extra time before he could continue.

Had the pain in those hips flared up again? Hardly.

“I got dirt in my eyes when I slid,” Johnson said. “I couldn’t see anything for a few seconds.”

Two innings later, Johnson became part of another nervous moment when he fielded a bunt between the plate and the mound and tumbled over pitcher Felix Hernandez as he made the throw to first base, too late to get the Orioles’ Cesar Izturis. Both Johnson and Hernandez hit the turf awkwardly, but neither was hurt.

“It’s kind of a do-or-die play and it was a great bunt,” Johnson said. “We were both calling for it, but he didn’t hear me and I didn’t hear him, and we both went after it. I didn’t even know he was there. I thought he went behind me.”

Of note

The Mariners finished their first homestand offering more proof that they’re a team built for Safeco Field. Their 7-2 record on the homestand gave them a 24-8 record at Safeco Field in 32 games going back to Aug. 16 last year. On the road since then, the Mariners have gone 10-19 on the road. … Shortstop Jack Wilson tied his career high with doubles in three consecutive games. His three-run double in the fourth inning Wednesday night was his fourth double of the three-game series against Baltimore. … First baseman Casey Kotchman has four multi-hit games this season, including three in the past four games. He’s batting .400 in that stretch and, in the nine-game homestand, batted .321 with two home runs, two doubles, six RBI and five runs scored.

Next Series

Opponent: Chicago White Sox

When: 5:10 p.m. today, 1:10 p.m. Saturday, 11:05 a.m. Sunday.

Where: U.S. Cellular Field in Chicago.

TV: FSN today and Sunday, FOX (channel 13) on Saturday.

Radio: ESPN 710 AM, all three games.

Pitchers: Today — Seattle left-hander Ryan Rowland-Smith (0-1, 4.50 earned run average) vs. right-hander Gavin Floyd (0-2, 9.00). Saturday — Right-hander Doug Fister (2-1, 1.42) vs. right-hander Freddy Garcia (0-2, 8.10). Sunday — Left-hander Jason Vargas (2-1, 3.93) vs. left-hander Jon Danks (2-0, 1.29).

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