ARLINGTON -- Justin Smoak recorded his first three-hit game of the season in Wednesday's 4-2 win against the Rangers, reaching base four times as he went 3-for-4 with a walk.
For the big first baseman, it's the continuation of a nice stretch, as he's overcome a slow start to put together his best season yet in the Majors, entering Thursday's finale with a .255 batting average and team-leading .362 on-base percentage -- both welcome improvements over his career .228 and .314 clips.
Smoak has hit .310 (13-for-42) with three home runs in 12 games since returning from the disabled list with a strained oblique. But he was coming on even before the injury and has hit .281 with six home runs over his past 34 starts.
"I felt like I knew where I wanted to be and I was starting to pick it up," Smoak said. "And going on the DL, I tried to stay with the mentality that I know what I want to feel at the plate when I do my work on the cage and in the field, and I want to just keep that. I feel like I'm squaring more balls up. I just have to keep doing it and the more I do it, the more doubles and homers will come."
Manager Eric Wedge is pleased with how Smoak stayed locked in with his batting approach even after missing 18 games.
"It's very encouraging," Wedge said. "Sometimes it can be momentum based, or it can be real. And this time, I think it is real, because he was on the rise, then paused for a while, and came back and picked it up and has been pretty consistent. I know eventually he's going to have better power numbers and do more damage because it's in there, but I love the way the ball is coming off his bat right now. Those are good indicators."
Smoak smoked the ball three times Wednesday and had hits both left- and right-handed.
"I felt pretty good," he said. "I've felt better from the right side the last times I've hit right-handed, so I'm feeling better and better and I just need to keep grinding it out."
Saunders eyes return in Cincy against righties
ARLINGTON -- Michael Saunders has been limited mostly to pinch-running duties the past five days after having the fingernail on his right middle finger crushed when he got spiked diving back on a pickoff throw against the Cubs last Friday, but the Mariners outfielder has found ways to contribute.
Saunders scored a run as a pinch-runner Saturday, then got his first chance for an at-bat Tuesday in a late-inning appearance and drew a walk before he scored the go-ahead run on Kyle Seager's home run in the 10th.
"It's like riding a bike. First at-bat in a week," Saunders said with a grin prior to Thursday's series finale. "Seriously, it was great. Obviously any time we win a game it's great, especially coming here to Texas. We won the series yesterday and it's time to get greedy today and try to get the sweep."
Manager Eric Wedge said Saunders would be back in the lineup this weekend, when the Mariners face three straight right-handers in Cincinnati.
"We'll get him back in there [Friday]," Wedge said. "That's the plan right now. Obviously he was able to go up to home plate and put up a good at-bat yesterday. He's still not 100 percent, but he's a lot closer."
Saunders said his finger is still sore and the final step will be throwing the ball full-out from the outfield, which puts the most pressure on the middle digit. But he's eager to return to action.
"You don't realize how much you need something so small until you hurt it," he said. "To hurt my fingertip, it doesn't sound like anything that would cause too much trouble. But with what we do, our hands are everything, and it's made me realize how important your fingernail or fingertip really is.
"But at least I'm not completely man-down. I've been able to get out and pinch-run, and I got my first at-bat last night and felt good. So that's encouraging. And there are a lot or righties coming up, so I'm looking to get ready for Cincinnati."
Veteran bats come through with runners on base
ARLINGTON -- For the Mariners, it's not just about how veterans Kendrys Morales and Raul Ibanez are hitting this season. It's when they're hitting.
On a team struggling to score runs, Morales and Ibanez have been the most consistent hitters with runners in scoring position. Morales is batting .282 overall this season entering Thursday's series finale against the Rangers, but that number jumps to .375 (27-for-72) with runners in scoring position.
Ibanez is hitting .246 overall, but .327 (18-for-55) with runners in scoring position. Thus, it's not surprising the two are leading the team in RBIs, with Morales at 48 and Ibanez 46 as the season moves past the halfway point.
"It's mainly a lot of concentration and what it takes to do to be a winner and help the team out," Morales said through interpreter Jaime Navarro. "Every time I have an at-bat, I need to be ready for the situation to help this team."
Rookie second baseman Nick Franklin has also done well with runners in scoring position in his month with the club, hitting .381 (8-for-21). And catcher Mike Zunino is at .294 (5-for-17) in his short time with the team. But the rest of the Mariners have struggled mightily.
Seattle ranks 26th among baseball's 30 teams in batting average at .238, and 29th in RISP average at .228, ahead of only the Astros' .223. Take Morales and Ibanez out of the equation, and Seattle's hitters are batting .195 with runners in scoring position.
"Raul is a clutch player, he wants to be up in those situations, and when you look at what he and Morales do with runners in scoring position, that's really been our Achilles, and everybody else can draw from that and watch and learn from it," said manager Eric Wedge. "If we thrive more in those situations, we'd be a completely different ballclub."
• Outfielder Michael Morse (strained quadriceps) will run the bases prior to Friday's game in Cincinnati as one of his final tests before beginning a Minor League rehab assignment. Morse is eligible to come off the DL on Friday, but isn't quite ready, according Wedge, and will first play a few games with Triple-A Tacoma.
• The Mariners were 16-18 all-time on the Fourth of July entering Thursday's game, having won five of their last six. Seattle has been on the road now for 24 of its 35 games on America's birthday.