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NYY@SEA: Iwakuma fans five through 7 1/3 frames

On Sunday, Safeco Field will host the finale of a three-game series between two teams hoping to keep up in the crowded American League playoff picture and arguably the Majors' toughest division.

The Rangers have endured an injury-riddled campaign that still has Texas 1 1/2 games behind the second-place team in the Wild Card race.

The Mariners are hoping they can reverse a recent skid to bring playoff fever to Seattle for the first time since 2001. They'll send an All-Star in Hisashi Iwakuma to the mound in hopes they can avoid being swept for the second straight series.

Earlier this season, Iwakuma earned a win against Texas by allowing just two runs and six hits in eight innings.

For his All-Star standards, he's struggled a little in his last four starts, going 1-3 with a 3.95 ERA over 27 1/3 innings. But his K/BB during that span is stellar (23/4).

He lost to the Yankees earlier this week, but probably pitched well enough to win, giving up three runs on seven hits and two walks in 7 1/3 innings. He gave up two runs in the first frame but recovered nicely, throwing six consecutive scoreless innings before the Yankees got to him for one more in the eighth.

"Early on, it seemed like they had a very good game plan of what I wanted to do," Iwakuma said through translator Antony Suzuki. "They had me by the book. I had to change my game plan from the second inning on, and I was able to get quick outs and use the inside of the plate more effectively."

He'll be opposed by Nick Martinez, who has regressed since re-joining the rotation on May 18 and earning his first Major League win on May 24. In his last outing on Monday against Cleveland, he allowed eight runs in two innings.

His biggest problem has been the lack of command with his fastball. It was a strength earlier in the season but it has slipped in the last three outings.

"I've got to attack hitters like I did earlier in the year," Martinez said. "Simplify things … It all starts with fastball command down in the zone."

Martinez said he has been "nibbling" too much on the outside part of the strike zone.

"I try to be too fine, I get behind and then I have to throw a fastball and they're expecting it," Martinez said. "I need to get ahead, work from the inside out. Get ahead of hitters and then see if I can get them to chase pitches outside the zone."

Martinez, who made his Major League debut on April 5 against the Rays, was 1-1 with a 2.14 ERA in his first four starts and five relief appearances before hitting this rough stretch.

"I still have confidence," Martinez said. "I understand this game is a roller coaster and you have your ups and downs. You don't pitch any differently, you just go out there and compete. You have good games and bad games. You just try to limit the bad games."

After Sunday, the teams don't face each other again until September 4-7 in Arlington.

Rangers: Washington says young pitchers should progress
Manager Ron Washington had his young hitters out early on Saturday working on their bunting, continuing a tactic they'd employed all season with their less experienced players concerning various aspects of their game.

"We're going to get better as the year progresses," Washington said. "We've got a lot of teaching to do and a lot of kids that have to get better. Our pitching staff is going to get better. They've shown flashes, they just have to be consistent."

The Rangers went into Saturday's game with a 4.46 team ERA, the highest in the American League. They also had 13 shutouts, four more than any other team.

"That's the inconsistency," Washington said. "The capability is there. I'm looking at their capability. It's there but a lot of them are learning on the job."

Montero debuts in cleanup spot
Jesus Montero made his season debut in the Majors on Saturday night, going 1-for-3 with a single against Texas after hitting .270 with eight homers and 40 RBI in 59 games at Triple-A Tacoma this season.

Despite Montero's struggles against big-league pitching since losing his status as a promising, power-hitting prospect, Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon elected to insert him into the all-important cleanup spot in his first game back at Safeco Field against southpaw Joe Saunders.

"We got to put somebody in the four-hole," McClendon said. "There's a left-hander on the mound … He's got some power and maybe he'll run into something behind [Robinson Cano]. How's that?"

Montero is a career .320 hitter against left-handers, against whom he's expected to primarily DH against unless he plays himself into -- or out of -- a more substantial role.

"He got better as the spring went on. He showed some pop as he got in shape, the bat speed came back," McClendon said. "It was a tough year for him, the previous year, for obvious reasons, but I think he's bouncing back, I think he's eager to make amends and contribute and help this team any way he can."

Worth noting
• Washington said he is considering either lefty Shin-Soo Choo or righty Adrian Beltre as his designated hitter for Sunday against the right-handed Iwakuma.

• For Seattle, Sunday will mark the 10th game in a stretch of 20 games in 20 days. They're 3-6/4-5 so far in that span.

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