HOU@SEA: M. Saunders exits after crashing into wall

HOUSTON -- Outfielder Michael Saunders will most likely go out on a Minor League rehab stint with Triple-A Tacoma this weekend before rejoining the Mariners, manager Eric Wedge said Wednesday.

Saunders, who sprained his right shoulder crashing into the Safeco Field wall April 11, is eligible to come off the 15-day disabled list Friday. Wedge indicated that Saunders was close to returning but would need a few games to get ready.

The Mariners could definitely use the athletic 26-year-old, as he will move into the center-field role as soon as he returns. Endy Chavez is filling that role now, with Franklin Gutierrez also on the disabled list with a strained hamstring.

"Saunders definitely is headed in the right direction," Wedge said Wednesday. "He had a real good day today playing catch. We'll go home tomorrow and let the doctors look at him again and potentially send him out as early as Friday. We want him to play for a couple days and hopefully get him back, whether it be this weekend or it could be as late as Monday."

As much as the Mariners need Saunders, they want him to get his timing back in Tacoma without rushing him.

"I think he needs to play for a couple days," Wedge said. "He might DH the first day or two, but I do need to get him in the field at least one day, because when he comes back, he's going to be playing center field.

"We've definitely missed him. He's a big part of this club. If you look at what he's ended up being here, there's a level of toughness he brings, a level of leadership for our younger kids. And being a complete player, his skill set is a big difference-maker for us, especially with Gutierrez out."

Andino replacing Ryan as starting shortstop

SEA@TEX: Ryan makes barehanded play to get Andrus

HOUSTON -- Brendan Ryan is regarded as one of the premier defensive shortstops in baseball, but his continued lack of offensive production has finally led Mariners manager Eric Wedge to go a different direction.

Wedge said Wednesday he would give utility infielder Robert Andino a run as the starting shortstop going forward, essentially flip-flopping the roles of the two infielders. Andino, 28, was acquired from the Orioles in a trade for Trayvon Robinson over the offseason.

Andino has not hit well in the early going for Seattle, either, carrying a .161 batting average in 31 at-bats into Wednesday's series finale with the Astros. But he is a career .235 hitter in eight seasons with the Marlins and Orioles, and Wedge is willing to take a shot after seeing Ryan continue his offensive struggles.

Ryan has just one hit in his last 25 at-bats as his average has dropped to .143 in 56 at-bats. After hitting .194 last season, that is not enough to make up for his stellar defense.

"I'm going to take it day-by-day, week-by-week and month-by-month, quite frankly," Wedge said. "I'm going to give Robert a chance to play and see where he takes it. I like what I saw with his work and his approach this spring. I don't feel it's been as good inseason, but it's been a little better here the last week in the cage."

Andino hit .263 as the Orioles' starting second baseman in 2011, but Baltimore was willing to part with him after he batted .211 in 127 games last season.

"It's an opportunity for Andino to go out and take it," Wedge said. "He doesn't have to get four hits today, he just needs to go out there and be a good big league player and let the rest take care of itself."

As for Ryan? Wedge is not closing the book. He just wants the 31-year-old to work on things to make a permanent improvement in his hitting approach.

Wedge intimated that he would have made a change last year if the Mariners had a better option. Munenori Kawasaki was the backup infielder last year, but he was not much of an offensive threat either.

"We stuck with him last year because we felt we'd give him every opportunity," Wedge said. "And quite frankly, we had an opportunity to give him every opportunity, if that makes any sense. But you can't expect change by doing the same thing every day. You have to change your habits and the way you go about doing things. It's as simple as that.

"We're going to give him a chance to work with [hitting coach] Dave Hansen and take a step back, hopefully to take two steps forward. It's up to him."

Smoak finds his stroke at plate against Astros

SEA@HOU: Smoak's RBI single opens the scoring

HOUSTON -- It has been another frustrating start to the season for Justin Smoak, but the Mariners first baseman went 5-for-10 in the Astros series and said he was finally feeling more comfortable at the plate.

Smoak raised his average from .188 to .228 in the three-game set and finished things off with his first home run, a solo shot down the right-field line, leading off the ninth inning in Wednesday's 10-3 loss to the Astros.

"It's mostly just slowing things down," Smoak said. "The first couple weeks I've been real anxious, so I'm just trying to slow things down and see the ball and hit it. I think early on I was trying to not just square it up, but trying to hit balls as hard as I possibly can hit them."

The Texas native seems to especially love playing in Houston, where he has now gone 12-for-24 with two doubles, three home runs and 10 RBIs in six games, the first three coming when when he was with the Rangers in 2010.

After hitting just .156 in the first 10 games of the year, Smoak has hit safely in nine of the last 11 games and batted .282 (11-for-39) in that span.

Worth noting

• Wedge said Hisashi Iwakuma remained on schedule for his next start Sunday against the Angels but would then most likely be pushed back several days for the following start when the Mariners finally have some off days to work with in early May. Iwakuma has been bothered by a blister on his middle finger on his throwing hand that has limited his innings.

• Kendrys Morales' eighth-inning home run Tuesday was estimated at 444 feet, which made it the longest homer at Minute Maid Park this season. The previous long? That would have been Jesus Montero's 441-foot bomb the previous night.