SEATTLE — Joaquin Benoit’s ongoing struggles are forcing the Mariners to seek alternatives for his role as the primary setup reliever for closer Steve Cishek.
Benoit wasn’t sharp again Thursday in allowing two runs in two-thirds of an inning against Baltimore, which turned a four-run lead into a tense ride over the final two innings before Cishek gained a four-out save by closing out a 5-3 victory.
"Sometimes, his shoulder doesn’t bounce back," manager Scott Servais said. "But it’s probably more of a mechanical, release-point, timing issue. To see him miss the strike zone as much as he’s missed it by, that’s very un-normal.
"That’s not him."
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Benoit, 38, missed a month earlier in the season because of shoulder inflammation that first surfaced in spring training. His availability remains limited; his outing Thursday was his first appearance in six days.
"Coming out of the game (Thursday) night," Servais said, "he wasn’t happy with his performance, but he said his arm felt fine. That was not an issue. There are certain days when he’s available and certain days when he’s not available.
"We’ve just got to manage it every day."
Benoit, 38, has a 5.30 ERA in 19 appearances after allowing eight earned runs over 8 2/3 innings in his last nine appearances. In contrast, he posted a 2.35 ERA over the previous six seasons in 388 games for three other franchises.
"It’s about winning games," Servais said. "I know he’s been good for a long time. I certainly respect that. He’s been one of the tougher guys in the league to hit for a long time.
"But I think he knows that, some nights, right now, he just doesn’t have it."
The Mariners have other options, and Servais signaled a willingness Friday to sift through alternatives — at least until Benoit regains his form.
"We’re going to have plenty of opportunities," Servais said, "for guys to make an impact (in the late innings)."
Rookie Edwin Diaz looms as the likeliest replacement. He has a 2.03 ERA in 12 appearances since his June 4 jump from Double-A Jackson. He also provides late-inning power with 23 strikeouts in 13 1/3 innings.
"What’s nice to see," Servais said, "is he continues to work on and develop his slider. It continues to get better, and it’s going to be the key pitch. You see a lot of guys in this league who throw hard, but the separator is the secondary pitch."
Give Benoit an assist there. The improvement in Diaz’s slider is due in no small part from his conversations with Benoit.
The Mariners will could shift recently-reacquired Tom Wilhelmsen, their former closer, into higher leverage roles. Wilhelmsen rejoined the roster Thursday after two tune-up appearances at Triple-A Tacoma.
Club officials also believe right-hander Nathan Karns has the repertoire to be an impact reliever in the late innings, although he’s probably not currently near the head of the line to pitch the eighth inning.
Right-hander Felix Hernandez experienced no problems with his right calf muscle in a 43-pitch bullpen workout and is vowing to return to the rotation in mid-July shortly after the All-Star break.
Current plans call for Hernandez to pitch in a simulated game next week before heading to the minor leagues for what projects as a two-start rehab assignment. He expects his first start to be July 10.
If so, that start is likely to be for Short-A Everett against Spokane (Rangers) at Everett Memorial Stadium. Hernandez’s second start projects to be July 15 for Triple-A Tacoma against Colorado Springs (Brewers) at Cheney Stadium.
If that timetable holds, Hernandez should return July 20 to the Mariners for a start against the Chicago White Sox at Safeco Field.
Hernandez was 4-4 with a 2.86 ERA through 10 starts before being diagnosed with a strained right calf after a May 27 outing against Minnesota.
Nelson Cruz hit 10 homers in June, which marked his third month in double figures since signing with the Mariners prior to last season. He also had 10 homers in April 2015 and 12 in August 2015.
The only Mariners player to reach double-digit homers in more months is…yep, Ken Griffey Jr., who did it 13 times. Alex Rodriguez also did it three times. No other player has done it more than twice.
A hat tip to Mariners broadcaster Gary Hill Jr. for the research.
The Mariners are expected to sign two 16-year-olds Saturday when the international signing period begins, according to Baseball America: Dominican outfielder Luis Veloz and Venezuelan shortstop Alexander Campos.
Clubs typically don’t confirm international deals until the player passes a physical examination and a signed deal is in place.
The international signing period covers players who are not eligible for the MLB Draft — i.e., residents from outside of the United States, Canada, Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories.
Players must be at least 16 years old when the sign and turn 17 either by Sept. 1 or by the end of their first professional season. They must also register with the MLB Scouting Bureau.
Veloz is 6-feet-2, 170 pounds and bats and throws right-handed. He is rated by Baseball America as the No. 29 available international prospect.
Campos is 5-10, 155 and also bats and throws right-handed. He is rated as the No. 49 international prospect.
Here’s what the Mariners’ 10-18 stumble through June did for their postseason prospects: the updated odds from www.bovada.lv list them as a 40/1 shot to win the World Series.
The Mariners were a 16/1 pick on June 1 in the Bovada odds.
Bovada, an online gaming service, continues to cite the Chicago Cubs as World Series favorites at 13/4 odds. Texas is now the second choice at 11/2 (up from 12/1 on June 1).
The Mariners now rate as a 20/1 shot to win the American League West Division and an 18/1 pick to win the AL pennant, which suggests Bovada is at least moderately bullish on them if they gain a wild-card berth.
On June 1, Bovada had the Mariners as a 7/5 pick to win the AL West and a 7/1 shot at the pennant.
Lo-A Clinton outfielder Alex Jackson, the organization’s top prospect, continues to find his form after a rocky start following his May 18 promotion from extended spring training.
Jackson, 20, is batting .300 (27-for-90) over his last 22 games, through Thursday, after a dismal 6-for-56 start through his first 16 games. He also has nine doubles, two home runs and 16 RBIs in his 22-game surge.
The Mariners selected Jackson with the sixth overall pick in the 2014 draft, and he entered the season ranked No. 1 in TNT Top 10 list of the organization’s prospects.
It was four years ago Saturday — July 2, 2012 — that the Mariners became the first MLB team to start three Japanese-born players: Ichiro Suzuki in right field, Munenori Kawasaki at second base and Hisashi Iwakuma on the mound.
The Mariners rallied for a 6-3 victory over Baltimore at Safeco Field. Other than Iwakuma, the only current Mariner in the starting lineup that day was third baseman Kyle Seager, although Tom Wilhelmsen pitched the ninth inning.
Just-recalled catcher Mike Zunino will likely start Saturday and Monday, manager Scott Servais said…Robinson Cano entered Friday’s game needing one hit to reach 100 before the All-Star Game for the seventh time in his career…Steve Cishek got his 19th save Thursday and needs one more in the next 10 games to reach 20 before the All-Star break for the second time in his career.
The Mariners and Orioles continue their four-game series at 7:10 p.m. Saturday at Safeco Field. Left-hander James Paxton (1-3 with a 4.15 ERA) will face Baltimore right-hander Tyler Wilson (4-5 and 4.50).
The game can be seen on Root Sports Northwest and heard on 710 ESPN.
Bob Dutton: @TNT_Mariners