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The Weekend Takeaway
Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik set out over the offseason to add “big-time power” to a lineup that had little of it in 2012. His search for thump reached far and wide, from bringing back Michael Morse to dabbling in the Josh Hamilton derby. And it culminated with two bargain-bin free-agent signings, Jason Bay and Raul Ibanez, and two trades, for Morse and for Kendrys Morales, who became expendable when Hamilton joined the Angels.

Entering this weekend’s series against the Athletics, the early returns on the lineup remodeling had been positive, even though the club as a whole was still mired in fourth place, rescued from the basement only by the presence of the Astros. What some perceived as a make-or-break season for Zduriencik—at least from the standpoint that, five years into his tenure, the club on the field was generally of his choosing—wasn’t going well. The 2012 Mariners went 31-43 over their first 74 games, and the 2013 squad was only a game ahead of that pace, welcoming Bob Melvin’s first-place team with its ledger at 32-42.

Friday’s opener, a 6-3 loss in which a three-run shot by Nick Franklin accounted for all of the team’s runs, was an inauspicious start to the series for Seattle. Bartolo Colon and Hisashi Iwakuma both pounded the strike zone, as they are wont to do, and Franklin alone could not keep pace with Yoenis Cespedes, Coco Crisp, and Jed Lowrie, who each went deep for Oakland (Cespedes did it twice) in game one.

On Saturday and Sunday, though, the first-year Mariners were up to the task.

The A’s carried a 5-2 lead into the seventh inning stretch of the middle match, as Jesse Chavez cleaned up Dan Straily’s early mess. In the home half of the seventh, Ibanez stepped to the plate with two on and one away, following a single by Kyle Seager and a walk drawn by Morales. He deposited an 0-1 curveball from Jerry Blevins into the right-center field stands, tying the game at 5-5 with his 15th home run of the season. A two-run single by Franklin plated the eventual winning runs in the eighth, giving the Mariners a 7-5 victory and knotting the series at one apiece.

On Sunday, it was the A’s who turned in a late-inning comeback, but not before Ibanez flexed his muscle again and again. The 41-year-old took Jarrod Parker deep in each of his first two at-bats, raising his homer total for the season to 17. For seven innings, the three runs were enough, but a Brandon Moss long ball in the top of the eighth sent the game into extra innings. And with Grant Balfour, perfect in his last 36 save opportunities, toeing the rubber in the last of the 10th, the A’s had to like their chances of living another inning.

Tasked with holding the line in a 3-3 tie, however, Balfour unraveled. The veteran right-hander struck out rookie catcher Mike Zunino with one out already recorded, but he did so with a wild slider, which got far enough away from ex-Mariner John Jaso for Zunino to reach. A single by Michael Saunders put the winning run 180 feet from the plate, and Eric Wedge went to the bench for pinch-hitter Kendrys Morales, who smacked a first-pitch fastball high and far to right-center for a three-run walk-off. (And no, in case you’re wondering, Morales did not severely injure himself in the ensuing celebration.)

Morales’ towering blast was the Mariners’ 85th of the season, the seventh-highest tally in baseball and a considerable hike from the team’s 19th-place finish last year. After ranking dead last with a .369 aggregate slugging percentage in 2012, the Mariners are currently 22nd, a more modest improvement, but an improvement nonetheless. And Ibanez, Morales, and company—with an assist to the revised dimensions of Safeco Field—are chiefly responsible for it.

Zduriencik’s prize in a one-for-one, intra-division deal for left-hander Jason Vargas, Morales is off to a .275/.334/.436 start in Seattle, with most of the production coming in a .343/.385/.598 May. Franklin, who took over for Dustin Ackley at second base in late May, also has added pop, checking in at .489 in the slugging percentage department. Kyle Seager has held his own in the middle of the order. And the return of Franklin Gutierrez from the disabled list should provide a boost, too.

But Ibanez, the quadragenarian who spent four years in Philadelphia and the Bronx before returning to Seattle on a one-year, $2.75 million hitch, has led the way. Ibanez took advantage of Yankee Stadium’s compact right field in 2012, drilling 19 regular-season homers and putting his stamp on the American League Division Series. His performance over the first 77 games of the 2013 season has thwarted any concerns that his remaining power was entirely a short-porch mirage.

Ibanez is batting just .240. His on-base percentage is an unsightly .282. And asking him to play left field is a crime against any pitcher. But Zduriencik wanted big-time power, and big-time power he has received.

Sunday’s victory, coupled with the Angels’ extra-inning defeat, bumped the Mariners into third place, a spot they ceded on June 10 of last year and never regained. Post-season contention is a long way off, but baby steps are being taken, and reinforcements, from Franklin and Zunino to top pitching prospect Taijuan Walker, who was recently promoted to Triple-A, are en route.

“I expect to be able to help my team,” Ibanez told reporters after the game. The expectation from Zduriencik and Wedge, at the time of his signing, was merely for Ibanez to bring a “veteran presence.”

With about half of the season in the books, he has done more than that. He has exceeded Josh Hamilton’s production for a fraction of the cost.

Matchup of the Day
Look out, American League East: Here come the Blue Jays. Left for dead just a couple of weeks ago, John Gibbons’ club has won 11 in a row, and its 13-5 rout over the Orioles on Sunday moved it out of the division cellar. Toronto is now 38-36 on the season, a fraction of a percent better than the 39-37 Rays, who are set to welcome the Jays to Tropicana Field this evening.

They will, as the winning streak might indicate, be welcoming a red-hot squad. Edwin Encarnacion is 22-for-70 (.314 average) since June 2 with seven doubles, six homers, 10 walks, and only six strikeouts. Adam Lind, a steady presence in a rollercoaster lineup since the beginning of the season, is batting .380 this month. And the pitching staff, blighted by injuries and regressions for two-plus months, leads the league with a 2.13 ERA over the past seven days.

One Blue Jay who has struggled to get on track, though, is Jose Bautista. The right fielder went 1-for-3 with a double and two walks in the series finale versus the Orioles, but before that showing, he had gone just 6-for-40 in the 10 consecutive Toronto wins. Bautista has 16 homers to his name, but his walks are down and his strikeouts are up, the latter to 18.5 percent, the highest clip he has posted since his 54-homer breakout in 2010. The 32-year-old is also hitting the ball on the ground 41 percent of the time, his highest rate since 2009 and one that could depress his home-run total if it doesn’t trend downward over the rest of the season.

Fortunately for Bautista, a pick-me-up might be on the way. He is 7-for-15 lifetime against Rays right-hander Jeremy Hellickson, and four of those seven knocks—a double, a triple, and two big flies—have gone for extra bases. All of that is good for a 1622 OPS, Bautista’s second best output off of any active pitcher that he has faced at least 15 times (A.J. Burnett, 1744).

Hellickson, meanwhile, is slowly turning around a dismal start to the 2013 campaign, which saw him toting a 5.82 ERA on May 17 and a 5.67 mark as recently as June 13. The 26-year-old is having no trouble throwing strikes—in fact, he is the only pitcher to make four big-league starts this month without walking a batter—but the strikes that he is throwing are far too often getting smacked. Once among the league’s elite hurlers at escaping jams, Hellickson has been clobbered to the tune of a .375/.400/.571 triple-slash line by opponents who have stepped in with runners in scoring position, the second highest OPS allowed in those situations by a qualifying starter, besting only the 993 effort amassed by R.A. Dickey.

The Des Moines, Iowa, native has shied away from throwing first-pitch fastballs to Bautista, preferring instead to flop in curveballs and work from there. That’s a sound strategy, because hitting benders is not Bautista’s strong suit—as long as the pitcher avoids the lower two-thirds of the heart of the zone. Unfortunately, Hellickson hasn’t had much success in keeping Bautista off-guard with his other offerings, leaving him behind the eight ball when it comes to retiring the powerful number-two hitter in Gibbons’ order.

Hellickson’s bread-and-butter changeup, a pitch on which he leans nearly 30 percent of the time because it induces a whiff on about 20 percent of its uses, hasn’t fooled Bautista. Both of Bautista’s homers off of Hellickson—this one on April 22, 2011, and this one in their most recent meeting on May 22 of this year—have come on the changeup, and so did this triple, the fate of the fifth changeup Hellickson threw in a six-pitch span.

So, where does Hellickson go from here? One idea might arise from the following chart:

Always a better hitter inside than away, Bautista has been flummoxed by outer-third pitches throughout the first two-and-a-half months of the 2013 season, and pitchers have aimed there increasingly often as a result.

The location plot above suggests that Hellickson is aware of Bautista’s relative strengths and weaknesses, considering that the bulk of his pitches, particularly the off-speed ones, have been aimed down and away. He might be wise to emphasize that approach even more than he previously has tonight, as the Rays look to climb out of last place in a division in which all five teams are now over .500 (7:10 p.m. ET).

What to Watch for on Monday
Twenty-two teams are off to begin the new week, leaving only four games on the Monday docket. Here are notes on the other three…

  • After four-plus years in Colorado and a shade less than two in Cleveland, Ubaldo Jimenez has checked off 27 opponents; his current and former employers account for two of the other three. Tonight, the 29-year-old righty will check off number 28, as the second-place Indians visit the second-place Orioles. Jimenez has failed to finish the sixth inning in each of his last three assignments, but his ERA has ticked down to 4.66, its lowest point since April 3, when he tossed six innings of one-run ball at the Rogers Centre. Jimenez owns a 2.77 ERA through seven road starts this season, a full 180 from his 2012 splits, which featured a 6.82 ERA away from Progressive Field. He’ll take on Zach Britton in game one of four at Camden Yards (7:05 p.m. ET).
  • Despite some early concerns about diminished velocity, Cliff Lee has been as consistent as ever this season. Over an eight-start span dating back to May 11, Lee has amassed a 1.93 ERA and held opponents to a collective .194/.233/.287 triple-slash line while fanning 58 and walking 10. From Cliff Lee, though, all of that is the norm.

    More surprising is the recent performance of Padres lefty Eric Stults. In five starts since May 29, the 33-year-old Stults has compiled a 1.69 ERA while limiting enemy batters to a .189/.206/.295 clip, striking out 25 and walking only three. That four-week-long stretch includes a complete tour of the injury-ravaged National League West and a date with the Mariners, but the weakness of the competition does not detract from Stults’ impressive command—which, as R.J. Anderson wrote back in April, has helped him to exceed the sum of his parts. It should also enable Stults to give Lee a run for his money in tonight’s opener at Petco Park (10:10 p.m. ET).

  • Madison Bumgarner tossed eight shutout innings at Dodger Stadium in his first start of the 2013 season, permitting just two hits, striking out six, and walking none. The 23-year-old lefty has, for the second time this year, won three consecutive starts, but in order to beat the Dodgers again he’ll need to contend with Yasiel Puig—whose All-Star Game credentials are, in the mind of Giants manager Bruce Bochy, still lacking. Puig tripled his walk total (from one to three) in last Saturday’s game and continues to bat well north of .400; if he’s ever going to change Bochy’s mind, the next three games would be the time (10:10 p.m. ET).

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Nit-pick - Bautista is actually hitting in the 2 hole for Gibbons and has been for some time. Although the 11 game winning streak is not his doing (other than a few very timely hits in the first win and the 10th), the non-traditional use of a slugger in the two-hole correlating to team-wide success may prompt other managers to experiment as well.
Thanks for catching that, R.A. I was looking at a box score that was older than I thought when I wrote that; it looks like he has started 37 games in the two-hole and 30 in the three-hole. And I'm with you in endorsing the notion of a team's best hitter batting second.