Paxton, Karns ‘neck and neck’ in battle for 5th spot in M’s rotation

PEORIA, Ariz. — The Seattle Mariners are entering the final week of their spring camp and, still, neither James Paxton nor Nathan Karns has emerged as a favorite to fill the rotation’s final slot.

“It’s very close,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “Neck and neck. They both have struggled at times. They’ve both looked OK for an inning or two here or there. It’s very close.”

The competition resumes Sunday when Paxton starts against the Chicago Cubs in Mesa. Then it’s Karns’ turn on Monday for a start in Peoria against Kansas City. Both are also in line to start the final two spring games.

Karns missed a chance to separate himself Wednesday when he gave up nine runs in 21/3 innings against Oakland. That led to a between-starts bullpen workout Friday that focused on his mental approach.

“He needs to start getting some confidence back as well,” Servais said. “I don’t think it was mechanical issues (Friday). It was more of his approach, where his mind is and getting after it.”

Paxton dropped down to a minor-league game last Tuesday after getting spanked by the Athletics in his previous start for seven runs in two innings.

The loser in the battle appears likely to start the season at Tacoma. Servais indicated the Mariners are backing away from the idea of putting the odd-man out into the bullpen.

“We’ve kicked the idea around a little bit,” he acknowledged, “but I think you’ve got to be careful that, if you do that, you can lose the ability to keep them stretched out.

“That if there is an issue (in the rotation), you don’t have an option to go to them.”

Furbush on hold

Lefty reliever Charlie Furbush still can’t shake the lingering tightness in the lower deltoid of his shoulder and now, after his latest examination, sounds like a pitcher who doesn’t expect to return to active duty for a while.

“I haven’t played catch in two days now,” he said. “I feel ready to play catch. I just think they’re trying to make sure. Once we get this game plan and start moving forward, we’ll have more of a timeline.

“That should give me some clarity on what the next three or four weeks will look like.”

Furbush, 29, missed the final three months last season because of biceps tendinitis and small tear in his rotator cuff.

“Overall, I feel pretty good,” he said, “so it’s just still not quite there yet. A little bit (of tightness). It’s something that I would like to go away. Once that little tightness goes away, I don’t see why it shouldn’t be fine.”

Furbush said he hasn’t yet undergone another magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) exam but admitted: “I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s the route. Just to gain some more clarity. Obviously, it’s unfortunate that I’m not ready for opening day.”

Catching competition

Catcher Rob Brantly, once viewed as an insurance acquisition, has played his way into competition with Steve Clevenger to serve as the backup to starter Chris Iannetta.

Brantly is 5-for-14 (.357) in 12 games since arriving in a March 12 waiver claim from the Chicago White Sox.

“Clevenger missed some time, being sick for a while,” Servais said, “and Brantly took advantage of some playing time. Brantly has swung the bat very well. I’ve also been very pleased with the progress that Clevenger has made defensively.”

Both are left-handed hitters — and both are out of options, which means either one would need to pass through waivers in order to be sent to the minors.

Clevenger is 8-for-28 (.286) in 11 games.

Short hops

Shortstop Ketel Marte returned to the lineup after missing two games because of the flu. … Plans called for outfielder Franklin Gutierrez, slowed recently by the flu, to drop down to minor-league games to catch up on missed at-bats. Lax rules in those games permit players to bat every inning. … Servias is also battling the flu. He said he planned to tough it out Saturday in the sun. Wisconsin toughness.

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