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OAK@SEA: Ramirez is solid against Athletics

Just throw strikes. Quality strikes.

Mariners right-handed pitcher Erasmo Ramirez hasn't done much of either since beating the Angels on April 1 in his season debut by giving up six hits, two runs and no walks in seven innings.

Ramirez is confident he can rediscover that sort of command Tuesday night at Safeco Field against the Astros. Houston ranks last in the American League with a .196 team batting average, though it did beat the Mariners 7-2 Monday in the series opener, snapping a season-high, seven-game losing streak and sending Seattle to its seventh consecutive loss.

"I know I'm better than that. I can do it. I know it. I feel it. I just have to realize what I did and keep pounding the strike zone and find the right mechanic[s] when I get ahead of hitters," Ramirez said last week. "If I need one pitch or two pitches, just go do it and don't be thinking too much about strikeouts. Just make them swing the bat and get ground balls or pop ups."

Righty Collin McHugh will make his season debut for Houston on Tuesday. McHugh was called up from Triple-A Oklahoma City on Monday to replace starter Scott Feldman, who was placed on the 15-day disabled list with biceps tendinitis after a strong start to the year.

McHugh was scheduled to follow Nick Tropeano in Triple-A Oklahoma City's tandem starter rotation Monday. Instead, he'll head to Seattle to face a Mariners offense that has been trending downward for the last week. McHugh threw Thursday in Colorado Springs and allowed one run on three hits with no walks and three strikeouts in five innings.

Astros manager Bo Porter said McHugh has built up his pitch count to 85, so he expects to use a long reliever Tuesday, though the way the Mariners' offense has performed lately, it might not be necessary.

Regardless, the Astros are well-equipped to dip early into their bullpen.

"The fact that [Jerome] Williams gave us three innings [Sunday], our bullpen is in good shape, and by [Tuesday], Paul Clemens would be well rested as well," Porter said.

So should Ramirez.

Last week against the Rangers in Arlington, he threw 62 pitches -- just 35 for strikes -- in two-plus innings. He gave up five runs, the Mariners lost 8-6 and his ERA ballooned to 7.50.

In three starts since beating the Angels, the 23-year-old from Nicaragua has allowed 13 runs in 11 innings.

"When you're not a power guy and you're working behind in the count consistently, that's a recipe for bad results," said Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon.

Recently, Ramirez has struggled to command his fastball and changeup. His mechanics haven't been the problem, though at times he has struggled to find the downward angle in his throwing motion that allows him to keep pitches low in the strike zone, according to Mariners pitching coach Rick Waits.

But most of all, he needs to throw strikes. Quality strikes.

"It's just a matter of working ahead more often, throwing less pitches and trying to get contact on his fastball and changeup," Waits said.

Mariners: Late-inning woes

This season, opponents have outscored the Mariners 17-0 in the eighth inning and 28-14 in the seventh inning or later. Yet, Seattle's bullpen entering Monday ranked sixth in the American League with a 3.32 ERA in 59 2/3 innings.

"[It's] probably more of a result of not getting quality innings from our starters," McClendon said. "It's probably more that than whether our bullpen has been a doing a job.

"They've just been overtaxed… at the rate they've been asked to go out and perform, it just won't work. We have to get some quality innings from our starters."

Astros: Carter expected to return to lineup

Porter said struggling designated hitter Chris Carter will return to the lineup Tuesday after being given Monday off against Felix Hernandez. Carter is scuffling mightily to begin the season, hitting .123 with no homers and two RBIs.

"We've been in a lot of close games and I'm not getting hits in those situations, and I'm not doing really much to help the team," he said. "I'm in a pretty important part of the lineup and have been DH'ing, so hitting is pretty much the only thing I'm doing and I'm not doing that well, so it's kind of tough."

Worth Noting

• Mariners designated hitter Corey Hart has 22 career home runs against the Astros, his most against any opponent.

• Seattle has been shut out four times in 19 games, which leads the AL and is tied with the Chicago Cubs for most in the Major Leagues.

• The Astros are 9-4 all-time at Safeco Field, including wins in seven of their last nine games.

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