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Mariners reliever Tuivailala builds strength at Triple-A as he nears return to majors

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The Mariners changed a lot in the offseason. Watch as fans struggle mightily on opening day to name as many players as they can on the roster.

Sam Tuivailala remembers trying to catch Rougned Odor in that unfortunate rundown in Arlington, Texas, last season.

Seattle Mariners third baseman Kyle Seager and catcher Mike Zunino had trapped Odor between third and home, and Tuivailala rushed off the mound to help.

He caught a throw toward home plate from Seager but Odor promptly changed direction. Tuivailala barely made his move toward third before lobbing the ball up to Zunino and tumbling forward into the infield grass.

“Getting the throw, I had to jump a little bit,” Tuivailala said. “As I’m coming down, all my weight was on my back leg, and right when I tried to push off, it just felt like someone spiked me in the back (of the right leg).

“I thought I ran into someone, and just couldn’t really put any type of pressure on it when I tried to take a step. I just remember tossing the ball and hitting the floor.”

It was just his fifth game with the Mariners, and it turned out to be his last of the 2018 season. Acquired from the St. Louis Cardinals in a trade for right-hander Seth Elledge, Tuivailala had torn his Achilles’ tendon and needed season-ending surgery.

“You never want an injury to happen,” Tuivailala said. “I was just starting to find my groove a little bit.”

Tuivailala compiled a 1-0 record and 1.69 ERA in 5 1/3 innings with the Mariners, while striking out four. Between the Mariners and Cardinals in 2018, he was 4-3 with a 3.41 ERA across 37 innings in 36 games.

“I’m eager to get back,” Tuivailala said. “I just want to be healthy and strong when I do get activated.”

He is eligible to return to the Mariners when he feels back at complete health, and he’s getting there, he said. Between high Single-A Modesto and Triple-A Tacoma this season, Tuivailala has made eight rehab appearances in relief, allowing two earned runs on two hits, while walking three and striking out seven in eight innings.

In six of those appearances, including his most recent one-inning outing with Tacoma on Tuesday night, he hasn’t allowed a hit.

“I’m feeling pretty good,” Tuivailala said. “Everything is coming along right now. I still have to make some adjustments, clean up some mechanics and everything, but for the most part, I’m feeling healthy, so that’s all I can really ask for right now.”

He said he’s trying to load up the back side, use his legs, and get his body going again to take stress off of his arm.

“Kind of just getting back into the routine,” he said.

Mariners manager Scott Servais said he is looking for consistency out of Tuivailala’s outings, and the possibility of working back to throwing multiple innings — he threw more than a single frame in 10 outings last season with St. Louis — as he continues to build toward a return to the majors.

“I think it’s important when he comes back, he’s just been (throwing) one-inning outings right now, kind of the way we’re set up in the bullpen, if he can go one-plus, two innings (that) would be important,” Servais said. “We’ll see. He’s progressing the right way. The velocity, the stuff continues to get better, and he’s throwing strikes.”

Tuivailala, as well as right-handed reliever Gerson Bautista (pectoral), and Seager (hand), are working through rehab assignments with the Rainiers. Bautista also tossed an inning in Tuesday night’s game, with his fastball reaching 100 mph, and Seager is expected to rejoin Seattle on Saturday, when he is eligible to be activated.

“Both of (the relievers) feel good,” Rainiers manager Daren Brown said. “Any kind of rehab guys, when they’re here, same thing with Seager, if they feel good, everything’s good.”

Lauren Smith covers the Seattle Mariners for The News Tribune. She previously covered high school sports at TNT and The Olympian, beginning in 2015. She is a graduate of the University of Washington and Emerald Ridge High School.

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