Baseball’s best bullpen will get the call a little earlier than usual after the Seattle Mariners shuffled their rotation.
Long reliever Tom Wilhelmsen will make his first career start as the offensively challenged Mariners try to avoid their longest losing streak in almost a month Thursday night against the visiting Minnesota Twins.
A year after its relievers ranked 29th with a 4.56 ERA during a 91-loss season, Seattle (49-41) currently holds the AL’s second wild card spot thanks in part to a bullpen that tops baseball with a 2.38 mark.
After Felix Hernandez was pushed back to Friday’s series opener versus AL West-leading Oakland, the Mariners decided on a spot-start for the finale versus Minnesota (41-49).
Manager Lloyd McClendon said he’s long considered using Wilhelmsen (1-1, 2.49 ERA) in a starting role. Now he’ll make it happen as his club looks to avert its first three-game skid since dropping five straight from June 10-14.
"It’s certainly intriguing, something that’s been on my mind," McClendon told MLB’s official website. "He’s a power arm, he’s got three to four quality pitches and he’s thrived in that long role. He seems to cherish it a little bit."
Wilhelmsen, who had 53 saves from 2012-13, has never started in 190 career appearances over four big league seasons. He’s likely to work a three- or four-inning stint before McClendon turns things over to the rest of his stellar bullpen.
That group didn’t allow an earned run over the final 5 2-3 innings Wednesday after Roenis Elias allowed seven runs in the first 3 1-3 of an 8-1 loss that dropped the Mariners to 2-4 since winning 10 of 12.
Minnesota’s Brian Dozier, Kurt Suzuki and Chris Colabello had two hits apiece, while former Seattle slugger Kendrys Morales doubled and drove in three runs. Morales has a home run in five career at-bats when facing Wilhelmsen.
"I think he’s getting it on the good part of the bat a lot right now," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "It looks like his timing is getting there. He put some really nice swings out there. That’s going to be big for us."
Wilhelmsen is 1-2 with a 4.66 ERA in 13 games versus the AL Central-worst Twins. He had a strikeout during his only appearance against them this year during a 5-4 road loss May 16. The right-hander has pitched well while facing Minnesota at Safeco Field, though, going 1-1 with a 1.93 ERA in six contests.
Seattle can help out the bullpen by getting its slumbering offense back on track. After getting shut out twice in three games, the Mariners’ only score Wednesday came on Robinson Cano’s RBI double in the seventh inning.
Cano, who finished with three hits, has been a bright spot with a .375 average and nine RBIs over his last 10 games. Michael Saunders went 2 for 4 Wednesday and is 8 for 19 over his last five.
Seattle, however, has totaled seven runs while going 3 for 44 with runners in scoring position over its last six contests.
Minnesota’s Yohan Pino (0-2, 4.98 ERA) seeks his first major league win after giving up one run and three hits over six innings of in Saturday’s 2-1, 11-inning home win over the New York Yankees.
The rookie right-hander had allowed nine runs and 14 hits over 8 2-3 innings in his previous two outings, including his only road start June 25 when he allowed five runs over three innings in a 6-2 loss to the Los Angeles Angels.
The Twins look to take the final three in this set for their longest winning streak since a four-game run from June 19-22.