Seattle Mariners

Mariners rotation adds stability with Wade LeBlanc’s return; reliever Matt Festa optioned to Triple-A

Seattle Mariners starting pitcher Wade LeBlanc throws against the Houston Astros during the first inning of a baseball game, Friday, April 12, 2019, in Seattle.
Seattle Mariners starting pitcher Wade LeBlanc throws against the Houston Astros during the first inning of a baseball game, Friday, April 12, 2019, in Seattle. AP

Wade LeBlanc is back to add a needed boost to the Seattle Mariners’ starting rotation.

The veteran left-hander spent most of the week in Seattle’s clubhouse after making a rehab start with Triple-A Tacoma on Monday, and was officially reactivated from the 10-day injured list Saturday to start against the Twins.

Mariners manager Scott Servais was hopeful the Mariners could get about five innings or 70-75 pitches out of LeBlanc, who last pitched for the club on April 12, and made an early exit with an oblique strain.

“I think (we want to see) what we’re used to seeing from Wade all the time — a competitive outing and use all of his pitches,” Servais said.

Servais said the Mariners would use the “eye test” to determine how far into Saturday night’s game LeBlanc will pitch — “maybe a little less, maybe a little more,” he said — but LeBlanc (2-0, 4.50 ERA) steadily worked into at least the fifth inning in each of his first three starts.

He tossed 90 pitches in 5 1/3 innings in his first outing against Boston on March 31 and 102 pitches in six complete innings on April 7 in Chicago. Both starts resulted in wins.

LeBlanc was on pace to work into at least the sixth inning again on April 12 against Houston — he was at 90 pitches through 4 2/3 — but the oblique injury ended his night with two outs in the fifth.

He was placed on the 10-day IL with a Grade 2 strain the following day, and was projected out four to six weeks, but said it didn’t feel like a major injury, and vowed to return quickly.

LeBlanc was playing catch against by the end of April, and made his one rehab start with Tacoma on Monday, allowing one run (earned) on three hits, while striking out two and walking two in 4 1/3 innings.

“It felt good to be back out there,” LeBlanc said earlier this week. “A little rusty on some pitches here or there, but the main thing I was looking for was being able to make adjustments.

“You’re going to make mistakes even if you’re on start No. 20 in your prime. It’s the ability to make the adjustment on the next pitch and get back to where you need to be, and I was able to do that. So, it’s a good step.”

The Mariners optioned right-handed reliever Matt Festa, who was recalled prior to Friday night’s game against the Twins, back to Tacoma to make space for LeBlanc.

Festa threw two innings against Minnesota, allowing one run on two hits while striking out two. He has allowed six earned runs this season with the Mariners in nine innings across seven appearances.

Servais noted Friday night he thought that was the best the Mariners had seen Festa pitch this season, and reiterated that Saturday.

“I thought he made a couple of adjustments mechanically, just minor things that have really helped,” Servais said. “He’s staying over the rubber longer. He’s added a curveball. There’s more depth. A breaking pitch with some depth, along with his slider, and his fastball had good life on it.

“I thought it was probably the best version of Matt Festa we’ve seen. And Matt’s had some good outings for us here in the past. But, I really liked it. I think there’s a future there. Just where we were at last night, we needed a spot today for LeBlanc, so we optioned him out, but he’ll be back.”

REHAB WITH RAINIERS

Rookie utility player Dylan Moore (wrist) started a rehab assignment with Tacoma on Saturday, and was projected to play a full nine innings with the Rainiers. He is eligible to return to Seattle’s lineup on May 20.

“We’ll wait and see,” Servais said of how many games Moore would play with Tacoma. “Maybe two, three days, maybe more.”

Right-handed reliever Sam Tuivailala (Achilles) has also joined Tacoma, and right-hander Gerson Bautista (pectoral) is projected to join the Rainiers at some point. He threw in back-to-back outings Thursday and Friday night with High-A Modesto, tossing two hitless innings with five strikeouts and two walks.

Mariners veteran third baseman Kyle Seager (hand) is still rehabbing with the Rainiers and is eligible to return on May 25.

“We’ve got some guys on the mend,” Servais said.

SHEFFIELD’S PROGRESS

The Mariners have yet to name a starter for Tuesday’s game in Texas after optioning rookie right-hander Erik Swanson to Triple-A on Friday.

But, whoever does start for Seattle, it won’t be top prospect Justus Sheffield, who made his regulary scheduled start with Tacoma on Friday night in Reno. The left-hander tossed 5 2/3 innings, allowing three runs on five hits, while striking out six and walking three.

Sheffield has pitched in eight games (seven starts) with Tacoma this season, compiling a 1-2 record and 4.38 ERA. While he’s shown flashes of dominance, he’s struggled also with command, walking 28 batters in 37 innings. He’s allowed 23 runs (18 earned) and has compiled 32 strikeouts.

“I think when we get to the point where we call Justus up, we’d like to call him up and leave him here, and let him go,” Servais said. “I don’t want to call him up and give him one or two outings, and then we go back and forth.

“I think he’s working on things right now. … He’s throwing the ball better. I know he’s working his changeup in more. A lot of positives there.”

Servais said he is not overly concerned about the line scores Sheffield is producing, given the offensive production across the Pacific Coast League this season.

“Getting caught up in the line score in the PCL right now is dangerous,” Servais said. “We’re not at the games, so it’s all we can really look at. We really have to go with the people that are there, giving us reports on the stuff, the command, the hits.

“If you look at the numbers in the PCL this year, they are off the chart. They switched the ball, so they’re playing with the major league baseball in Triple-A, and it’s changed the game quite a bit. I think it’s a good thing for pitchers. Now they don’t have to make an adjustment when they come to the big leagues with the ball. But, the numbers are up dramatically.”

BULLPEN ALMOST ALL RIGHT

Roenis Elias is the only left-hander the Mariners have remaining in the bullpen after Zac Rosscup was designated for assignment by the club Friday. Seattle has eight right-handed relievers on the active roster.

Servais said there is no urgency to get another left-handed arm, but rather the Mariners will continue to stack relievers who can work through multiple innings, with their starters averaging less than six innings an outing.

“It’s just try to get the best pitchers up here,” Servais said. “The left-on-left thing, with how we’re built, that’s why we thought it really wasn’t a great fit for Zac Rosscup here. We’re not looking to just jump a lefty in there. It’s more valuable sometimes to get the guy who can give us one-plus or two innings.”

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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