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SEA@TEX: Iwakuma pitches eight strong innings

SEATTLE -- If one is inclined to see two pitchers at the top of their game, Safeco Field on Sunday afternoon might be a good place to start.

Mariners No. 2 starter Hisashi Iwakuma and Astros ace Dallas Keuchel will take the hill as Seattle tries to capture a four-game series from Houston.

Iwakuma (3-0, 1.76 ERA) has pitched like an ace in May after missing all of Spring Training and nearly the first five weeks of the regular season with a strained tendon on the middle finger of his throwing hand. The right-hander has gone eight innings in each of his last three starts and given up two combined runs while posting a 15/1 strikeout-to-walk ratio and holding opponents to a .171 batting average.

"He's come out throwing the ball really well," catcher Mike Zunino said Saturday. "It's just one of those things where he's hitting his spots. He's gotten better and more consistent with his offspeed pitches. I don't know if it was the time off or rehabbing, but he's been able to go deeper into ballgames."

Meanwhile, Keuchel (5-2, 2.92 ERA) has won his last three starts and is coming off a pair of gems. He threw a shutout May 13 against Texas and came within a strike of throwing another Monday in Anaheim, but was removed after 8 2/3 innings. He threw 128 pitches Monday and 108 on May 13 and was given an extra day of rest, along with the rest of the rotation, when left-hander Brett Oberholtzer was called up to start Saturday's 9-4 win.

"It's always nice, but at the same time, the day after and the second day after have been the best feeling days I've had in a while," Keuchel said. "I'd like to just go with [regular rest], but obviously the Mariners are left-handed heavy and we wanted to go with three lefties in the rotation. My job is to go out there and pitch, so I'm going to take the ball tomorrow and see what I can do with it."

In his last eight starts, he's 5-1 with a 2.54 ERA. In 2014, he leads the staff in wins, innings pitched, strikeouts and quality starts.

Keuchel credited improved command for his breakout beginning.

"You can't be afraid of throwing a strike, 3-1, or not trying to attack the zone instead of nibbling. My first two years, even a little bit last year, when I first got up here I nibbled too much, trying to be too fine," he said. "Obviously, we're not going to throw the best pitch we want every time. I knew going into this year that I just wanted to attack."

Astros: Villar struggling at the plate
Shortstop Jonathan Villar went 0-for-3 Saturday to fall into an 0-for-17 funk that had dropped his average to .207 this season.

Villar ranks second among American League shortstops with five homers, but manager Bo Porter would like to see him drive the ball more.

"He's been working extremely hard with [hitting coach] John [Mallee] to really shorten up his swing," Porter said. "I think a lot of times you can hit a few home runs and it can be dangerous for you. You can have just enough power to kill yourself. He's a guy that could use his speed more. I've said this to him many times, 'If you're hitting hard ground balls or line drives, we're on the right path.'"

Mariners: Facing load of lefties
The Mariners feature a predominantly left-handed lineup, but they've had success against left-handed starting pitchers this season.

They dropped to 12-7 against southpaws after allowing Oberholtzer to earn his first win of the season Saturday. When the Mariners go against Keuchel, it will be the third game in a row they oppose a lefty. They follow that Monday against Angels lefty Tyler Skaggs (4-1, 4.14 ERA).

Manager Lloyd McClendon intimated he's happy with the way the lineup has attacked left-handers.

The Mariners are eighth in the AL with a .249 batting average vs. lefties.

"I think most of our guys stay in and handle lefties pretty good," McClendon said. "I don't think they're overwhelmed by them."

Worth noting
• Mariners second baseman Robinson Cano has reached base in 31 consecutive games. The streak has surpassed his previous career-best of 26 and is the longest active mark in the Major Leagues.

• Mariners rookie James Jones has a 14-game hitting streak after getting an out call overturned via instant replay in the second inning Saturday. He's posted a hit in each of his first 15 career starts. Comments