Outlook: Felix remains one of baseball's best hurlers

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Felix Hernandez has done a lot of things for the Mariners over his nine seasons in the Majors, but he came up with one new idea Friday.

On his way off the field following four innings of outstanding work against the Rockies, Hernandez meandered through the defense warming up for the next frame, stopped and chatted with an umpire, intercepted a ball in center field intended for Abraham Almonte, who was playing catch with right fielder Stefen Romero, then asked for the ball back moments later and tossed it to a fan in the stands as he exited the field.

Relaxed? Why not, given he'd just held the Rockies to two hits and an unearned run in his strongest outing yet this spring. But beyond that?

"I was going to play center field," Hernandez said with a laugh. "l said, 'Almonte, go.' I would like to play center field one of these days."

He was kidding, of course. But Hernandez has carried much of the team in recent years and is preparing for his club-record seventh Opening Day start on the mound.

He was efficient enough Friday that he got through his designated four innings on just 41 pitches, then went to the bullpen to throw 24 more to get his count up to 65.

"Felix threw the ball extremely well," manager Lloyd McClendon said. "I thought he came out very, very well. It looked like he was a little more focused tonight. He felt very strong. He wanted to go back out there, but we wanted to get [Erasmo] Ramirez out there as well."

Hernandez allowed just a pair of singles and the one unearned run, courtesy of a throwing error by Minor League second baseman Jack Reinheimer on a double-play relay in the second. The Mariners ace walked one and struck out two in his longest stint so far this spring.

"Not bad," he said. "I threw a lot of strikes. I told Lloyd to let me go back out [for another inning] and he said, no, go to the bullpen. I was just throwing a lot of fastballs down in the zone and working on my changeup."

Injured pitchers still sidelined, but making progress

Iwakuma may miss start of season with finger injury

PEORIA, Ariz. -- Reliever Stephen Pryor threw live batting practice Friday, which is another step forward for the hard-throwing right-hander as he returns from surgery last fall to repair the latissimus dorsi muscle behind his throwing shoulder.

"He threw a simulated [game] last week and that went well," manager Lloyd McClendon said. "We'll see how it goes. He's progressing well. He's throwing under control. It's firm. He feels real good about where he is. We just have to stay with the program."

That same holds true for the Mariners' two injured starters.

Taijuan Walker felt good Friday after his initial bullpen session the day before, as he returns from an inflamed shoulder that shut him down completely for a week.

Walker threw long-toss again Friday and will do so again Saturday, then another bullpen session Sunday.

"He's frustrated. He wants to move faster," McClendon said. "But he'll stay with the program."

Hisashi Iwakuma hasn't thrown a pitch this spring after spraining the tendon in the middle finger of his throwing hand right before camp. He caught the finger in a net while jumping to field a ball over his head during a pitching drill.

Iwakuma will see a hand specialist Tuesday for more tests and the Mariners have their fingers crossed. If all goes well, Iwakuma could be told that the splint on his finger can come off and he can begin gripping a ball and throwing again, which would allow him to start rebuilding his arm strength.

"Hopefully we'll have good news [Tuesday]," McClendon said.

Iwakuma worked in the bullpen again Friday doing "towel drills," which involves going through his throwing motion on the mound with a towel wrapped in his hand instead of a ball. The drills are designed to keep him as ready as possible until he gets clearance to throw.

Neither Walker nor Iwakuma will be ready for the start of the regular season, which is now just 17 days away. But if all goes well, both could return sometime in April and only miss a couple of starts each.

Pryor's outlook is more vague, but McClendon has indicated there is an outside chance he'll be ready to at least start throwing in spring games before the regular season opens.

Montero one of four Mariners cut from big league camp

Johns discusses Mariners demoting Montero to Triple-A

PEORIA, Ariz. -- Former top catching prospect Jesus Montero, who is attempting to convert to first base this spring, was one of four Mariners players cut from their Major League camp on Friday as the club continued whittling down the contenders for its Opening Day roster.

"I told Jesus he did an extremely good job for us in camp," said manager Lloyd McClendon. "He worked his tail off. He just had so far to go, particularly coming in so heavy. But he made tremendous strides. He probably made the biggest strides of anybody in camp. But he's only halfway there. He has to continue to work and continue to do what he's doing to get himself back to the big leagues."

Montero, 24, was optioned to Triple-A Tacoma along with young outfielders Xavier Avery and James Jones. Those three players are all on the Mariners' 40-man roster.

The other player cut Friday was shortstop Chris Taylor, who isn't on the 40-man roster, so technically he was reassigned to Minor League camp. All four will continue working out in the adjacent Minor League complex and can still play in Cactus League games, if they're needed for that duty in the remaining 17 days of camp.

Montero was the Mariners' starting catcher at the start of 2013 after being acquired from the Yankees in a trade for Michael Pineda the year before, but struggled both with the bat and behind the plate and was sent down to Tacoma after hitting .208 in 29 games.

After playing 19 games in Triple-A last year, Montero injured his knee and then was hit with a 50-game suspension in the Biogenesis case. He came to camp this spring carrying extra weight, but has worked to lose that in the past few weeks and has hit well, batting .310 with three doubles, two home runs and five RBIs in 29 at-bats over 12 games.

First base hasn't gone nearly as smoothly, and the former catcher committed two errors in the same inning of Wednesday's game with the Cubs. He'll get a chance to work more on that in Tacoma.

Avery and Jones both played well this spring, but lost out in the numbers game in the outfield. The club still has seven outfielders in camp -- Dustin Ackley, Abraham Almonte, Michael Saunders, Corey Hart, Stefen Romero, Endy Chavez and Cole Gillespie, while utility man Willie Bloomquist and first baseman Logan Morrison can also play some outfield.

Jones hit .265 with a home run and six RBIs in 34 at-bats, while Avery batted .240 with five RBIs and three stolen bases in 25 at-bats.

Taylor, 23, was last year's Mariners Minor League Player of the Year after hitting .314 between Class A High Desert and Double-A Jackson, but didn't figure in the big league team's plans yet with Nick Franklin and Brad Miller competing for the shortstop job. He hit .158 with a double, a home run and five RBIs in 19 at-bats this spring.

The Mariners have 40 players remaining in their Major League camp, with 29 of those on the 40-man roster and the other 11 being non-roster invitees.

Worth noting

• The Mariners made a pitching change for Sunday's game against the Angels and will start left-hander Roenis Elias, a non-roster invitee who is having a strong camp, in the 1:10 p.m. game in Tempe. Veteran right-hander Scott Baker, who was scheduled to start, instead will pitch in a Minor League game in Peoria.

The club wanted to avoid having Baker face the division-rival Angels for a third time in four spring outings and also will get a better look at Elias, a 25-year-old Cuban who has allowed just one earned run and six hits in 7 1/3 innings over three appearances this spring.

• After sitting out the past five days with a stiff lower back, Corey Hart played first base Friday and went 0-for-3 with a strikeout.

• Shortstop Brad Miller made an outstanding defensive play on a double-play grounder up the middle in the fourth inning with a backhand flip to the bag, and also went 2-for-2 with a triple to raise his spring average to .407. But McClendon said the competition at shortstop continues to be heated between Miller and Nick Franklin.

"He's played extremely well and competed well," McClendon said. "It's been interesting. And Nick has played well also. It's been a lot of fun watching."