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KC@SEA: Iwakuma fans nine over eight scoreless in win

Mariners right-handed pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma will make his first start of the season on Saturday, when Seattle tries to even their series with Houston in the second leg of a three-game series at Minute Maid Park.

Houston earned a 5-4 win on George Springer's walk-off single in the 11th inning on Friday.

Iwakuma missed Spring Training and all of April while rehabbing from a strained ligament on the middle finger of his right hand. He was injured when he fell and snagged his hand in netting during a workout in Southern California in late January.

He made his way back through a tedious rehab program that began in late March. He started by throwing a tennis ball to regain finger strength, then progressed to long toss with baseballs, bullpen sessions, short simulated games and finally a rehab start for Triple-A Tacoma last weekend in Las Vegas.

Iwakuma went four innings for the Rainiers and gave up three runs (two earned) on six hits and no walks. He struck out two and threw 83 pitches.

"It wasn't easy," Iwakuma said Friday through an interpreter. "I've never been in this kind of situation before, but at the same time you don't want to lose your focus. I'm happy to be here and starting again."

His return should help a Mariners rotation that was depleted most of April because of injuries to Iwakuma, Taijuan Walker (shoulder inflammation), James Paxton (lat strain) and Blake Beavan (shoulder tendinitis).

Right-hander Erasmo Ramirez was supposed be Seattle's fifth starter, but he was demoted to the Minor Leagues after beginning the season 1-3 with a 6.75 ERA.

When Iwakuma, 33, is activated Saturday, he will move back to the No. 2 spot in the rotation in what will be his third season with the Mariners. In 2013, he finished third in Cy Young voting after going 14-6 with a 2.66 ERA and 1.01 WHIP in 33 starts. In terms of WAR, an advanced statistic that measures a player against an average Major League replacement, Iwakuma was best among American League pitchers (7.0).

If all goes well, Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon expects him to throw around 100 pitches.

"I feel good right now," Iwakuma said. "I feel strong in general, but the reality is it's only one rehab start. So obviously I'm not 100 percent, but I'm good to go for a game. So we'll go from there and hopefully things work well, and I get the pitch count up higher than what we had in Las Vegas."

Astros: Keuchel looking for two in a row over Mariners
Coming off four consecutive quality starts, left-hander Dallas Keuchel will get the nod for Houston on Saturday. On April 21, he handed ace Felix Hernandez his first loss of the season in a 7-2 win over the Mariners at Safeco Field.

In six innings, Keuchel yielded two runs on six hits and a walk. He struck out a season-high eight and captured his second win by getting ahead in the count and mixing up his pitches.

"I think I have some above-average offspeed stuff, and when I throw my fastball for strikes with movement, it kind of sets up that offspeed," Keuchel said after the game. "Anytime I can get ahead and make those guys think about the fastball, it makes that offspeed so much better."

Keuchel is 2-1 with a 3.56 ERA in five starts. Last week, he picked up a no-decision by throwing 6 1/3 innings of six-hit, three-run ball in Houston's 7-6 win over the Athletics. He retired 13 hitters in a row after allowing two runs on three hits and a walk in the first inning.

"I feel confident," he said. "Not to say I've never really felt confident before, but right now I would say I'm just commanding everything and through my year and a half up here, it's been trying to decide what pitches I need to work on and what pitches I need to scratch."

Keuchel said he scratched his slow 12-6 curveball earlier this year and has gone to more of a slurve -- a slider, curve mix -- to go along with his changeup and two-seam and four-team fastballs.

"I think that's really helped me out, just because I throw a lot of two-seam changeups, and the slurve I throw sits on the same plane as my fastball and I think it's getting better results now just because the hitters can't see the spin as well," he said. "This year has been a big year for me, and I'm looking to build on it."

Mariners: Slump becoming distant memory
After losing eight consecutive games, the Mariners have won five of their previous seven, including two straight over the Yankees in a rain-shortened series in the Bronx.

"We've played well. We hit that little rough stretch, but we've turned around and won a couple at home and hopefully we can carry it over the rest of this road trip," said catcher Mike Zunino, who hit a two-run homer in the series opener.

After Sunday's finale, the Mariners head to Oakland for four games to conclude their nine-game, three-city road trip.

Worth noting
• The Mariners' 3.57 ERA is the third lowest in the AL.

• Astros right-hander Scott Feldman will throw a simulated game Sunday at Minute Maid Park. If all goes well he could rejoin the Houston rotation as early as Friday in Baltimore.

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