TB@SEA: Leone fans five in relief appearance

MINNEAPOLIS -- Without an established long reliever in his bullpen mix, Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon went to rookie right-hander Dominic Leone for a career-long 2 1/3 innings Wednesday after Brandon Maurer got in early trouble in a 2-0 loss to the Rays.

Leone responded with five strikeouts and just one hit in a scoreless outing and ranks second among all rookie relievers in the American League in strikeouts (21) and third in ERA (1.56). His 2 1/3 innings and five strikeouts were both season highs for any Seattle reliever.

McClendon certainly hasn't labeled Leone as a long man, having frequently used him in shorter and later-inning situations as well, but he recognizes the versatility and value of the 22-year-old from Clemson.

"He's proven that he can do that, if necessary," McClendon said of the longer role. "I don't have a problem using him in those situations. He pitched so well on the front end of that bullpen right now, bridging things for us, I would say low-impact type situations. He's a youngster and we have to be careful with him. But I've been very pleased with the way he's throwing the ball."

As a 16th-round selection in 2012, Leone is one of just two players selected in the 10th round or later from that Draft who has appeared in a Major League game, joined by Angels reliever Mike Morin (13th round).

Leone said he isn't concerned about not having a specific role, but just watches how games develop and starts getting geared up mentally and then stretching out when the situation dictates. He was a starter in college and understands the concept of conserving energy in longer outings, something that can come in handy if called early as he was when Maurer lasted just 3 2/3 innings Wednesday.

"When you get thrown in there in the fourth or fifth inning, you want to save the guys behind you and also be out there [as long as you can], especially if you're feeling good," he said. "That was the case the other day when I got out there in the fourth inning and I wanted to help bridge the gap to the later-inning guys so they can sit in their roles and not change what they're doing for that day. So it just depends on the situation."

Leone had one rough outing in Houston on May 4 when he gave up a Jonathan Villar home run as well as a single and walk to the three batters he faced, without recording an out, but has since thrown 4 2/3 scoreless innings with three hits, two walks and eight strikeouts in four outings.

"This is the big leagues," he said of the Houston hiccup. "I don't know many guys who are perfect throughout the entire season. That was a learning experience. They have a short porch out in left and a guy struck a ball and put it in that little corner of the seats and everything kind of unfolded after that. But it's a learning curve. You're going to have those ups and downs. It's how you come back from those downs that really determines who you are as a pitcher."

And Leone is rapidly proving to be an important one for the Mariners as he becomes more settled in his first season in the Majors.

"A little bit," he said of his increased comfort level. "I feel like I'm part of that bullpen and I obviously don't want to go anywhere. I want to cement my name in that 'pen and I'm constantly out there trying to prove that."

McClendon confident offense will heat up

TB@SEA: McClendon on Mariners' 2-0 loss vs. the Rays

MINNEAPOLIS -- As the Mariners hit the quarter point of their season, their 20-20 record belies an offense that ranks near the bottom of the American League in most offensive categories.

Going into Friday's series opener against the Twins, Seattle sits 12th among the 15 AL teams in runs per game, 14th in batting average (.232) and last in slugging percentage (.370) and on-base percentage (.294).

Their pitching has kept them competitive, ranking fourth in ERA (3.56) and opponent's batting average (.240).

After coming off back-to-back games against Rays starters David Price and Jake Odorizzi when they totaled just one run and eight hits, manager Lloyd McClendon insisted he wasn't concerned about the lack of offense.

"No. We've had our ups and downs and we've seen the bounceback out of it," McClendon said prior to Friday's game. "Unfortunately we've had a couple guys that were struggling that pitched their best games against us, Price and the other young man. We just have to move on and get ready for this series."

After working as the high-powered Tigers hitting instructor the prior seven seasons, McClendon said that club had its rough games as well.

"Everybody talks about the offense in Detroit," he said. "But it wasn't a push-button offense. They had ups and downs and struggles, too. Last year in Detroit we got shutout maybe five or six times. It happens. It happens to everybody. It's always personal when it happens to you.

"But we're going to be fine. This team will be fine. We'll hit. We're challenged a little offensively, but I believe when it heats up, bats heat up as well. I think we have some bats that will heat up. They're grinding it out and trying to get it done."

Nobody is comparing the Mariners offense to the Tigers, but McClendon said his club is better than it looked the last two games at Safeco Field.

"When you get two hits and get shutout, nothing looks good. That's just the way it is," he said. "We looked pretty darn good the other night when we scored [12] runs. You try not to over-analyze and blow things out of proportion. You continue to look at the big picture.

"Do we have shortcomings offensively? Of course we do. Do we have challenges? Yes we do. Can we win? Yes we can."

Saunders back in lineup, but not in leadoff

KC@SEA: Saunders injures leg chasing after liner

MINNEAPOLIS -- Right fielder Michael Saunders returned to the starting lineup Friday after being limited to a pair of pinch-hit appearances over the previous four games after hyperextending his left knee last Saturday.

"I'm good," Saunders said. "I'm ready to go."

But with rookie center fielder James Jones now entrenched in the leadoff positoin, Saunders was slotted into the No. 2 spot in the order for the first time this season by manager Lloyd McClendon.

Saunders led off 12 times earlier this season and has led off 40 times in his career, while batting second 39 times prior to Friday's series opener with the Twins. There's some benefit to batting behind the speedy Jones, he said, but only to an extent.

"I think the general consensus is you might see more fastballs [hitting second]," Saunders said. "I think it really depends on the pitcher. I believe that how pitchers have been getting you out is how you're going to get pitched. Their main concern is getting the guy out at the plate and however they feel comfortable doing that is how you're going to get pitched.

"Now that being said, a guy like Jones gets on first base and he's a threat to steal, you might see another fastball here or there. But I really feel like they're going to pitch to their strength and your weaknesses."

The guy hitting third, however, also plays into the equation. And Saunders smiled when it was mentioned that Robinson Cano was now directly behind him in the order.

"He might let you see some more fastballs," Saunders said. "They're not going to walk you with him behind you."

Worth noting

• Major League Baseball changed the scoring on Friday on two plays from an earlier Mariners game, affecting statistics for several players. A defensive play by Cano against the Yankees in New York that originally was charged as an error to Cano when shortstop Brad Miller didn't get to the bag to cover in time has now been ruled a hit, which raised Roenis Elias' ERA to 3.69.

And a Saunders' bunt in Oakland that previously had been ruled a fielder's choice and sacrifice was changed to a base hit, raising his average to .226 going into Friday's action.

James Paxton will throw a two-inning simulated game prior to Saturday's contest at Target Field, his first time facing live hitters since straining his lat muscle on April 8. Taijuan Walker is slated for a bullpen session Saturday and then could progress to his first sim game Tuesday or Wednesday when the team travels to Texas.

• McClendon was sporting a new hat Friday after tossing his old one into the Safeco Field stands Wednesday after getting ejected by first-base umpire Lance Barksdale.

"My shoulder feels it a little today," McClendon said.

• Infielder Chris Taylor has been placed on the seven-day disabled list in Triple-A Tacoma after breaking his left little finger sliding into second base in a game earlier this week. Taylor was hitting .372 in his first 35 games while spliting time at shortstop and second base.