After the first 107 games of the season, the Mariners had two pitchers listed among the 10 most-used relievers in the American League, which is not necessarily a good thing.

Right-handed closer David Aardsma ranked fourth with 51 appearances and right-handed setup man Mark Lowe was tied for seventh with 49 appearances. The last thing manager Don Wakamatsu and pitching coaches Rick Adair and John Wetteland want is for anyone on the staff to get overworked.

"For me, we're at the 50-appearance stage, and that's where you have to keep an eye on them," Wakamatsu said of the relievers. "We have a couple of guys there right now. We play a lot of one-run ballgames, which is abnormal, so that's why you see so many appearances" for Aardsma and Lowe.

The Mariners lead the Major Leagues with 26 one-run victories. They have also lost 13 games by the slimmest margin. With only three complete games the entire season, the bullpen has been used often.

The burden might be eased after Sept. 1, when rosters can be expanded to as many as 40 players. But the next three weeks may determine whether the team can contend for the AL West or the AL Wild Card playoff spots.

The Mariners open a three-game series against the reigning AL champion Rays on Friday night at Safeco Field, nine games behind the division-leading Angels and 6 1/2 games behind the Red Sox in the Wild Card.

That's a lot of ground to make up in both races.

"I said coming into the season that I wanted to create an environment where everybody pitches and not use just one or two guys every night," Wakamatsu said.

Innings-wise, the 'pen appears to be in good shape. Lowe leads the relievers with 51 1/3 innings, one more than Aardsma. Right-hander Sean White has logged 50 2/3 innings in 42 appearances; right-hander Miguel Batista checks in with 52 1/3 innings in 40 appearances; and right-hander Shawn Kelley, who missed 52 games because of a strained oblique, has logged 22 2/3 innings in 21 appearances.

The series opener against the Rays features a Ken Griffey Jr. Bobblehead. The first 20,000 fans will receive one.

Between that and right-hander Felix Hernandez making his 23rd start of the season, a near-sellout is expected for the 7:10 p.m. PT opener. As of Thursday afternoon, about 3,000 tickets remained.

Pitching matchup
SEA: RHP Felix Hernandez (12-4, 2.78 ERA)
The ace right-hander battled with his command for seven innings in his last start but still managed to beat the Rangers and notch his 12th win of the season. A lot of fortitude and a little luck worked in his favor as he went without his best fastball or slider. It was the second straight substandard outing for the All-Star, but neither he nor the club seems concerned. This will be his first start of the season against the Rays, the only team the Mariners have not played. Hernandez started one game against Tampa Bay last season and held the eventual AL champs to one run over eight innings, but he had to settle for a no-decision. He is 1-1 with a 2.54 ERA in five career starts against the Rays.

TB: RHP Jeff Niemann (10-5, 3.62 ERA)
The unforeseen sterling season for Jeff Niemann continued Saturday, as the rookie right-hander became the first Rays pitcher to reach double digits in wins this season. Since May 13, he is 8-2 with a 2.70 ERA, and 2-0 with a 0.52 ERA in two starts against Kansas City. It was his eighth quality start, and the fifth time he has pitched eight-plus innings this year. Certainly Niemann is a candidate for American League Rookie of the Year, and he may even find himself in a Cy Young race if he keeps at this pace. Manager Joe Maddon was particularly pleased by how he maintained composure all game long despite not having great command with his curveball, which is normally his best pitch.

Tidbits
The status of Aardsma for the series opener could be touch-and-go. He had a boil removed from his backside in Kansas City and, as Wakamatsu put it, "You have heard of day-to-day. He is minute-to-minute." The right-hander ranks among the AL leaders with 26 saves in 28 chances. ... Since July 1, catcher Rob Johnson has reached base via hit or walk in 19 of his past 20 games, including the last nine straight. ... Veteran right-handed reliever Chad Cordero, signed during Spring Training, is still in Arizona and pitching in games. His fastball has been in the 82-84 mph range, down from his usual 88 mph, and it appears unlikely that he will pitch for the Mariners this season. ... Chris Shelton, who was designated for assignment to make room on the roster for left-handed pitcher Luke French, cleared waivers and accepted his assignment to Triple-A Tacoma. He will report to the Rainiers on Saturday for Tacoma's series against Round Rock. The Express' pitching staff includes former Mariners right-hander Roy Corcoran, who was also designated for assignment, cleared waivers, refused his assignment to Tacoma and signed a Minor League contract with the Astros.

Tickets
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On the Internet
 MLB.TV
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Up next
• Saturday: Mariners (Ian Snell, 2-8, 5.19) vs. Rays (James Shields, 6-8, 3.75), 7:10 p.m. PT
• Sunday: Mariners (Ryan Rowland-Smith, 1-1, 4.22) vs. Rays (Scott Kazmir, 6-6, 6.10), 1:10 p.m. PT
• Monday: Mariners (Lucas French, 2-2, 3.93) vs. White Sox (Gavin Floyd, 9-6, 3.91), 7:10 p.m. PT