HOUSTON -- Nearly three months since he sprained the tendon in his right middle finger catching it in a netting prior to the start of Spring Training, Mariners All-Star right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma is ready to take the mound Saturday for his first start of 2014.
Iwakuma's season debut comes against the Astros in a 1:10 p.m. PT game at Minute Maid Park. He spent all spring with his finger in a splint before being able to throw and start building up his pitching arm over the past six weeks.
And, yeah, it's been a long haul for the 33-year-old from Japan, who finished third in the American League Cy Young Award voting last year and then immediately said he wanted to improve on that season.
"I look forward to tomorrow," Iwakuma said Friday, speaking through translator Antony Suzuki. "It's been a long wait. I've always wanted to be part of the team soon and contribute, so that said, it's a very exciting day for me."
It's a welcome day as well for the Mariners, who have had Iwakuma, James Paxton, Taijuan Walker and Blake Beavan all on the disabled list for most of the first month of the regular season. With help from rookie Roenis Elias and veteran addition Chris Young, they've cobbled things together as best as possible behind ace Felix Hernandez.
Seattle's starters have gone 9-7 and rank fifth in the AL with their 3.70 ERA through the first 26 games despite getting just two starts from Paxton, one from Beavan and none from Walker. But there's no question they'll be boosted greatly by the return of Iwakuma, who was their most productive starter last year, when he went 14-6 with a 2.66 ERA in 33 starts.
"Anytime you can go back-to-back All-Star pitchers in your rotation, that's pretty good," said manager Lloyd McClendon, who finally has Iwakuma following Hernandez in the rotation. "Obviously that's going to be a big lift for us."
The Mariners had won five of their last six games and were coming off two straight wins against the Yankees as they arrived in Houston, so Iwakuma figures the timing is perfect for his return.
"We have momentum on our side, and hopefully I can get on top of that and kind of go on a roll," he said.
The Mariners will need to make a move Saturday to add Iwakuma to their 25-man roster. McClendon said the likely scenario would be to send a reliever down to Triple-A Tacoma, as the club is currently carrying an extra bullpen arm after promoting Lucas Luetge when Erasmo Ramirez was sent down last week.
Elias joins elite with 10-K night in New York
HOUSTON -- How good was Mariners southpaw Roenis Elias in Thursday's 4-2 victory over the Yankees? The 25-year-old allowed one earned run and struck out 10 in his seven-inning stint, becoming just the second opposing rookie in the last 45 years to strike out 10 or more in his Yankee Stadium debut.
He became the first Cuban with a 10-strikeout game in the American League since Jose Contreras with the White Sox in 2008, while Jose Fernandez of the Marlins has done it six times since then in the National League.
"I thought he used his fastball and his curveball really effectively," said Yankees manager Joe Girardi. "He got a number of strikeouts on his curveball. He has pretty good stuff, that young man. We saw up to 94 mph and a pretty effective curveball."
Elias thought he had a couple more strikeouts, stalking off the mound aggressively on several occasions after believing he'd thrown a third strike, only to get pointed back to the hill by home-plate umpire Bill Miller.
Umpires tend to not be happy about getting shown up by rookie pitchers, so catcher Mike Zunino cautioned his teammate after the scene was repeated several times in the fourth frame on what turned into a walk to Mark Teixeira.
"Yeah, I told him after that inning to settle that down a little bit," Zunino said with a smile. "And he said OK and stayed right on the dirt when he thought calls were close. That's just him, just thinking balls were close. Luckily he was able to not let that rattle him."
Manager Lloyd McClendon said he didn't think Elias was trying to show up the umpire and likes the confidence and fire the youngster shows when competing.
"I'm still trying to get a few more guys to loosen up and unleash their talents as well," McClendon said. "He certainly has done everything we've asked him to do."
Saunders moves back into leadoff role
HOUSTON -- True to his word, Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon had outfielder Michael Saunders back in the lineup for Friday night's series opener against the Astros following his 3-for-4 night in Thursday's 4-2 victory over the Yankees.
McClendon said after that game that players often make out the lineup with their performances, so Saunders was back in the leadoff spot as the Mariners opened a three-game set with the Astros at Minute Maid Park.
McClendon moved Saunders to right field and had Abraham Almonte back in center -- though hitting ninth for the first time this season -- after giving him a day off Thursday. Almonte hit just .204 in 25 games in April, primarily in the leadoff role, with a .248 on-base percentage.
The 6-foot-4 Saunders isn't a classic leadoff type, but does have good speed and reached base with two singles and an RBI double against the Yankees to hike his own average to .233. After opening the season 0-for-9, Saunders has hit .294 (10-for-34) with six runs, two doubles, a triple and home run in his last 17 games, with a .368 on-base percentage in that span.
McClendon said he'll take Saunders' Thursday numbers any night in the leadoff spot, but remains uncertain if he is a long-term answer in that role.
"I'm not sure," he said. "Right now with Almonte struggling a little bit, somebody has got to hit there. He's the next guy up."
Saunders says he just keeps coming to work every day eager to fill whatever role comes his way. Though he started just 10 of the first 26 games, he came off the bench in 12 other games and is finding ways to make his presence felt.
"I just want to contribute," Saunders said. "It's not about one individual guy, it's about getting W's. I come to the park ready to play. If I'm not in there, I have to prepare for whatever I get called upon. The biggest thing for me is making sure my timing stays there, which has been my biggest hurdle. When I am in there, I understand I'm not always going to go 3-for-4. I'm just looking to help the team any way I can."
As for Almonte? The 24-year-old says he discovered from watching video that he's been pulling his head off pitches, particularly swinging left-handed, and hopes to get a fresh start after working on that in the batting cage. After leading off 23 of the first 26 games and batting second in his other start, he'll get a different look now from the No. 9 spot.
"I'm hoping that will relax him a little bit and help him get going," McClendon said.
• Pitchers Taijuan Walker (right shoulder impingement) and James Paxton (left lat strain) continue playing catch and rehabbing back in Seattle while the team is on its nine-game road trip.
"I would hope they would sometime in the next week start throwing bullpens," said manager Lloyd McClendon, who indicated Walker is a little ahead of Paxton at this point in his potential return from the disabled list.
• Blake Beavan, also on the DL with right shoulder tendinitis, has not yet been cleared to start throwing, McClendon said.