SEATTLE — Another lifetime major leaguer will make a pit stop in Tacoma over the next few weeks.
Outfielder Norichika (Nori) Aoki, who has played 598 games at the major-league level, including opening this season as the leadoff hitter for the Mariners, was optioned Friday to Triple-A Tacoma.
Part of Aoki’s demotion had to do with the team’s need for fresh arms for an overworked bullpen. Pitchers David Rollins and Donn Roach were promoted from Tacoma, and were available to pitch Friday.
But the other part of it has to do with Aoki’s struggles hitting left-handed pitching. The 34-year-old Japan native is batting just .177 with one extra-base hit in 79 at-bats this season.
“Nori considers himself an everyday player,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “And to be an everyday player, you’ve got to hold your own against the (left-handed pitchers).”
Through interpreter Kosuke Inaji, Aoki said he was not surprised by the news of being sent to the minors.
“I haven’t been able to produce as I always do — up to my standards,” Aoki said. “That is the way MLB works.”
Aoki has played in the minors on two different occasions — both on injury rehabilitation assignments. The last time came last season with the Giants when he spent four games with Triple-A Sacramento returning from a broken leg.
Not only as Aoki been struggling at the plate, he has been noticeably limping around the clubhouse after fouling a pitch off his foot during the last road trip.
Aoki insists he is feeling fine physically.
“One of my strengths is not getting injured, so right now I feel great,” Aoki said.
Aoki said he has not decided when he will report to the Rainiers. He has 72 hours to join the club.
“I feel like I haven’t been able to contribute to the team as much as I’d like to. On the other hand, it motivates me to come back again as fast as I can.
Of course, there is still a lot of the season left, so hopefully I can come back and help the team out in the second half.”
FLURRY OF MOVES
Follow closely, because the M’s made plenty of moves Friday.
*To Triple-A Tacoma: Aoki and reliever Tom Wilhelmsen, whom Servais said could rejoin the M’s after three of four outings.
*Up to the big club: Right-hander Donn Roach, who was a starting pitcher in Tacoma, and left-hander David Rollins, who pitched one-plus innings of scoreless relief for the Mariners on June 17 in Boston before being sent back down.
Roach is expected to serve in a long-relief role, Servais said.
Also, recently-traded Wade LeBlanc was technically promoted from Tacoma as well to start Friday night for the Mariners, even though he has not pitched for the Rainiers.
*On the disabled list: Right-hander Adrian Sampson (elbow), who went on the 15-day DL. Also, reliever Tony Zych (shoulder) was transferred to the 60-day DL.
Servais said Zych is not close to returning to the big club.
‘TERRIBLE’ TIME TO GET HURT
Sampson considers himself a “pretty tough guy” normally.
So to remove himself before throwing the first pitch of his scheduled start Thursday in Detroit was a bummer.
“For me to come out of the game, there has got to be something going on,” Sampson said.
The Skyline High School graduate said he felt good throwing in the bullpen before the game, but afterward, his elbow “kind of tightened up” warming up on the mound.
“First time that’s happened,” Sampson said. “Obviously it was on the big stage, and it was pretty terrible.”
After pitching two-plus innings for the Rainiers on Wednesday, Rollins was given Thursday off by manager Pat Listach,
So he hung out in the dugout, not in the bullpen.
And he got a few crazy looks from teammates.
“Guys were looking at me different, messing with me more,” Rollins said. “I was like, ‘What is wrong with you? Leave me alone.’”
They knew another promotion for Rollins was imminent.
Fortunately the Rainiers are in Sacramento, so it was a short two-hour flight for Rollins on Friday morning.
“I am pumped to be back,” he said.
Nick Neidert struck out a career-high 12 hitters in six innings, and Clinton (Single-A Midwest League) opened the second half of the season with a 6-1 victory over Kane County on Thursday night.
Neidert allowed one run, and won his fourth game of the season. Center-fielder Luis Liberato and catcher Arturo Nieto combined for half of the team’s 10 hits.
It was four years ago — June 25, 2012 — when Erasmo Ramirez became the eighth rookie in club history to have a double-digit strikeout game (10 strikeouts).
Unfortunately, Ramirez was on the losing end of a 1-0 game against Oakland. Guess who victimized the right-hander with the game’s only run on a solo home run in the second inning? It was current M’s outfielder Seth Smith.
Ace pitcher Felix Hernandez (right calf) resumed his throwing program, stretching out to 120 feet in long toss Friday. … Closing in on his one-year anniversary for his last game, reliever Charley Furbush (shoulder) has thrown bullpen sessions. In fact, he did one in Tacoma during the M’s last road trip. His last appearance was July 7, 2015. … After pitching three-plus innings Thursday in place of Sampson, Vidal Nuno was unavailable Friday. … In the 20 years of interleague play, the Mariners have posted winning records against the National League in seven of them — but haven’t since 2009 (11-7). They were 6-1 heading into the game Friday.
The Mariners are back in action Saturday night at 7:10 p.m. for the second game of the three-game series with the Cardinals. Right-hander Nathan Karns (5-2, 4.38 earned run average) will pitch for the Mariners. Mike Leake (5-4, 4.00) counters for St. Louis.
The game can be seen on Root Sports, and heard on 710-AM ESPN.