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7/29/2014 7:04 P.M. ET

Ackley feeling confident due to strong July

CLEVELAND -- Mariners left fielder Dustin Ackley seems to make a habit of heating up as the weather warms and the 26-year-old has continued that trend with a strong July.

Ackley led the Mariners in batting average in the second half last year and he's off to a similar stretch this season as he hit .375 (27-for-72) with eight doubles in his first 21 games of July heading into Tuesday's series opener against the Indians.

That's a welcome turnaround for the first-round pick in the 2009 First-Year Player Draft, whose season average dipped as low as .214 after batting just .165 in June. He took a .251 average and renewed confidence into Tuesday's game, where manager Lloyd McClendon had him hitting leadoff for the first time this year.

Ackley said he's finally relaxing at the plate and letting things flow instead of overthinking.

"It's been huge," he said of his recent run. "The way I felt the last two weeks, probably starting a day or two before the All-Star break, is way better than it's been all year. Early on this season I felt really great, then there was a month or two gap where it didn't feel right. But now it's feels about as good as it's felt in a long time.

"The goal the whole year has been to get my swing to the point where I don't have to think when I get up there, I can just go up and hit and do what I have to do. That's where it's been the last couple weeks. I haven't had any swing thoughts or anything like that. That's really the ultimate goal for me, just getting up there and clearing my head and that's it."

McClendon said he hopes Ackley can jumpstart an offense that has struggled to score runs and lost five one-run games in the previous 10 days.

"It's the same swing, he's just getting hits," McClendon said. "He's attacking the outside pitch, swinging at strikes and he's got some positive results. We can talk about getting in the box and relaxing and being patient, but until you get positive results, nobody relaxes."

Ackley has consistently driven the ball to the opposite field during his recent stretch, which seems a good indicator that his approach is working.

"That's been part of it. I'm not thinking about going that way. It's just if that's where it's pitched, that's it," he said. "Earlier I was trying to go that way, but when you're trying to do this or trying to do that, I think it just has to happen. And for me that's been the separator."

Saunders takes BP, nearing rehab assignment

CLEVELAND -- Right fielder Michael Saunders took batting practice with the Mariners on Tuesday for the first time since straining his left oblique muscle on July 10 as he gets closer to going out on a Minor League rehab assignment.

Saunders is eligible to come off the 15-day disabled list as soon as he's healthy, but he is just now starting to swing the bat and throw, so his return figures to still be at least a couple weeks away.

"I'm going to take BP today on the field, run around and shag a little bit and start going through the motions," Saunders said. "Barring any setbacks, I feel like I'm getting close. Certainly I'm not going up there and swinging 100 percent right now. But that being said, I don't think I ever try to do that in a game either. I feel like I can put a good competitive swing on the ball right now and as the days go by here in Cleveland and actually taking BP, we'll know more."

Saunders hopes to take part either in a simulated game in the next few days or to stand in the batter's box while pitchers throw their between-start bullpens so he can begin seeing pitches and give himself a jump start. If all goes well, there's a chance he'll go out on a rehab assignment at some point while the Mariners are on their road trip this week.

"I've been out for 2 1/2 to three weeks now and the ball is going to look like it's coming in a little hard right now," he said. "It's something where if I can get any advantage before I actually go out on a rehab assignment, maybe that will lessen the time I have to be down there before I come back."

The Mariners could certainly use Saunders as he's hit .276 with six home runs and 28 RBIs in 65 games and is third on the club in slugging percentage at .434, trailing only Kyle Seager's .484 and Robinson Cano's .454.

The 27-year-old is also an excellent defensive outfielder. He said throwing is one of the last things to come around with the strained oblique, but he played catch at 90 feet on Sunday and will continue building up his arm in the next few days in Cleveland.

Paxton might return to the mound on Saturday

CLEVELAND -- The Mariners are still not listing a starter for Saturday's game at Baltimore, but rookie southpaw James Paxton is on the current road trip with the club and could be in line to slide back into the rotation after spending most of the season on the disabled list.

Paxton, ranked by MLB.com as the Mariners' No. 4 prospect, will throw a bullpen session before Tuesday's game with the Indians after pitching 4 1/3 innings and throwing 78 pitches in his latest rehab start on Sunday for Triple-A Tacoma. Paxton was 2-0 with a 2.25 ERA in two starts in early April before straining the lat muscle behind his left shoulder.

"We'll see what happens tomorrow, then we'll make a decision," manager Lloyd McClendon said when asked Monday what comes next for the 25-year-old.

Is there a chance he will start Saturday?

"That's a possibility," McClendon said.

The other logical choice would be to bring Erasmo Ramirez back for another start. Ramirez threw well in his last outing for Seattle before being optioned back to Tacoma on July 22. He threw six innings while allowing nine hits and three runs in a no-decision Monday for the Rainiers and would be eligible to return on Saturday, if needed.

Players must remain in the Minors for 10 days after being optioned, unless they're recalled to replace an injured player. That rules out a Saturday return for Taijuan Walker, whose 10-day window doesn't expire until Sunday.

The Mariners currently only have four starters on their 25-man roster after sending Walker down following his July 23 start.

Worth noting

• While Ackley was put into the leadoff spot on Tuesday for the first time this season, it's the 104th time in his career he's hit first for the Mariners (97 times in 2012 and six times last year). Ackley becomes the sixth player to hit leadoff for Seattle this season, joining James Jones, Endy Chavez, Abraham Almonte, Michael Saunders and Willie Bloomquist.

• McClendon bumped right fielder Corey Hart down to eighth in Tuesday's lineup, just the seventh time in his career he's hit eighth or lower and the first time since 2010.

• The Mariners are 49-17 (.742) when scoring three or more runs, the fourth-best winning percentage in the Majors in that situation. But the club is last in the American League in scoring at 3.83 runs per game and is 5-34 when they've scored two or fewer runs.

Greg Johns is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB as well as his Mariners Musings blog. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.