6/16/2013 12:30 A.M. ET
Starting pitching continues to be Mariners' strength
By Jeff Kirshman / MLB.com
OAKLAND --The Mariners hope a revitalized lineup will benefit the team's offense -- the fifth-worst in the Major Leagues -- so that it can take advantage of its stellar pitching as of late.
Seattle's starting pitchers have recorded seven straight quality starts since June 7, allowing one run or less in six of those starts. Mariners starters have lowered their combined ERA from 4.23 to 3.93 in the process, going 4-1 with a 1.07 ERA during that span.
Joe Saunders' win -- his first on the road this season -- against the A's on Friday in which he allowed just one earned run in seven innings was the Mariners' fifth consecutive start of at least seven innings, their longest stretch of such starts since 2011.
Seattle ace Felix Hernandez looked to continue that trend Saturday, with Hisashi Iwakuma taking the bump Sunday against Bartolo Colon.
"[Hernandez] is a special pitcher, and I feel like with him and Iwakuma, we have two of the better starting pitchers in the league, maybe baseball," Wedge said. "That's why it's so imperative for us to get the offense going."
Smoak inching toward return to Mariners
OAKLAND -- Before Saturday's game, Mariners manager Eric Wedge alluded to the possibility of Justin Smoak returning to the team from a Triple-A rehab stint for the second half of Seattle's road trip against the Angels starting Monday.
"I don't want to lock myself into anything just yet," Wedge said, adding that he'd discuss further with Rainiers interim manager John Stearns before making a decision.
Smoak, who is recovering from a right oblique strain, and Franklin Gutierrez, who is coming back from a strained right hamstring, went a combined 2-for-7 and scored three of Tacoma's six runs in the Rainiers' win over Sacramento on Thursday as the two look to finish their time in the Minors and join the big league club.
"It's a combination of how they feel and how they're doing," Wedge said. "So they're doing all right and they're feeling OK. We'll reevaluate everything after tomorrow."
Dustin Ackley could also see a return in the near future if his success with the Rainiers continues. Ackley was demoted to Triple-A after hitting just .205 in the first two months of the season but has thrived with a .412 batting average in Tacoma, including a 2-for-4 performance on Thursday.
"It has to be able to translate up here," Wedge said. "I think his mindset is the biggest thing."
Ackley's time in the Minors has also served as an opportunity for the Mariners to see him switch to the outfield after playing at second base earlier in the season. He'll most likely play in the outfield if he's to return to the Major Leagues with rookie Nick Franklin having success at second base.
"He's been playing some center field, some left field," Wedge said. "We know he can play second base basically perfectly, too. That versatility only helps us and helps him."
Blanco makes Mariners debut behind the plate
OAKLAND -- Newly acquired catcher Henry Blanco made his first start for the Mariners in grand fashion Saturday against the A's, belting a grand slam in the sixth inning that accounted for all of Seattle's runs in its 4-0 series-clinching win.
Blanco briefly caught for Felix Hernandez as a member of the Venezuelan team in the World Baseball Classic, but it appeared as if they had played together for years. Hernandez finished the night with seven innings of shutout ball for his fourth scoreless outing of the season, striking out eight and walking just one.
Blanco got the nod in part because Seattle's rookie catcher, Mike Zunino, only had experience with Hernandez from Spring Training. The Mariners swapped catchers Friday when they signed Blanco and designating Kelly Shoppach for assignment.
He also took part in a key defensive play by tagging out Jed Lowrie at the plate in the fifth to save a run and handled reliever Yoervis Medina masterfully when the right-hander pitched himself into a jam. Blanco displayed the type of leadership manager Eric Wedge raved about upon his signing.
The 41-year-old, in his 16th Major League season, appeared in 15 games for the Blue Jays this year before being released on Monday. A career .226 hitter, including .184 (7-for-38) in 2013, Blanco is known as a defensive specialist, with a 40.7 percent caught-stealing rate.
Wedge said Zunino will return to the lineup Sunday.
Jeff Kirshman is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.