TEX@SEA: Morales homers to put Mariners in front

PEORIA, Ariz. -- When the Mariners acquired Kendrys Morales from the Angels in December in exchange for Jason Vargas, they knew they were bringing in an experienced middle-of-the-order hitter who could be a force when he's fully healthy.

So far this spring, they've gotten all of that and more. Not only is the 29-year-old Cuban heating up at the plate -- batting .368, with two of his four home runs coming in the last two games -- he's setting an example with a work ethic that is rubbing off on his teammates, according to manager Eric Wedge.

Wedge calls Morales' batting-practice regimen "as professional as anybody we've got," saying that every swing has a purpose. Morales and fellow newcomers Raul Ibanez, Michael Morse and Jason Bay have set a tone from the start of camp, and the results have been impressive for a team that is leading all Major League clubs in home runs and slugging percentage this spring.

"I've said so many times, you can't help but be better when you watch these veteran guys take BP and go about their business every day," Wedge said. "It's what we talked about that we didn't have last year and we do have this year. It's only going to help those younger kids understand what it takes to be a successful big leaguer."

Morales said that he's hitting his stride this spring, his first with a completely healthy ankle since he shattered his left leg while jumping onto home plate in a walk-off celebration against the Mariners on May 29, 2010.

"I'm working hard in the batting cage, and things are starting to come about," Morales said on Monday through interpreter Rafael Colon. "I'm going about my business every day in the cage, working hard, and I'm having some success with that.

"My preparation started well before I got to Spring Training. Now I'm sharpening my focus to get ready. But my base started way before Spring Training. My ankle has obviously allowed me to come in much more prepared. I've been able to lift weights and have a mind-set ready to go from the beginning."

As for his focus in batting practice, Morales said that's something he's developed by watching older players before him.

"I've played with a lot of veterans, both in Cuba and over here," he said. "And what I've done is basically learned from them on what to do. So now my routine in BP is to stay up the middle, see the ball and hit the ball hard."

Morales hit .306 with 34 home runs and 108 RBIs with the Angels in 2009 and was rapidly developing into one of the game's premier hitters when he was hurt two months into the 2010 season. If he can come close to approaching that sort of production now that he's healthy again, the Mariners will indeed have a middle-of-the-order presence.

Over the course of Morales' career with the Angels, the vast majority of his starts came while hitting fourth, fifth or sixth in the order. Wedge has slotted him in either third or fourth in the games he's played this spring, and clearly he's comfortable in that role.

"My experience in the big leagues has helped me gain confidence and enabled me to continue there in the middle of the lineup," Morales said. "And that's a responsibility I take seriously."

Iwakuma battles effects of heat against A's

Outlook: Iwakuma bolsters Mariners' starting rotation

PHOENIX -- Hisashi Iwakuma wasn't his normal ground-ball-inducing self on Monday, but the veteran right-hander battled his way through a spring-high five innings, and the Mariners held off the A's for a 6-5 win in Cactus League action at Phoenix Municipal Stadium.

Iwakuma gave up six hits and three runs, including a two-run blast by catcher Derek Norris in the fourth inning. The 31-year-old wasn't as sharp as he'd been in previous outings, having allowed just seven hits and three runs in 10 prior innings.

After not walking a batter all spring, he issued two free passes and recorded no strikeouts, but he said there was a reason for that, as the 83-degree heat caused him some issues with the ball.

"My pitches were a little higher than I expected, especially the fastball," Iwakuma said through interpreter Daisuke Sekiba. "The air was kind of dry, and the ball felt a little slippery. So I tried to pitch lower, like last time, but I didn't have good command with it. I was losing my grip."

Iwakuma's sinker normally induces numerous ground balls, but an uncharacteristic 10 of his outs came on fly balls, compared with four on the ground, and the A's cranked out three doubles in addition to Norris' home run.

Manager Eric Wedge saw no reason for concern, however, as Iwakuma continued working his way through a long spring.

"I thought he threw the ball well," Wedge said. "He was up a little bit later, but he did a good job putting the ball on the ground when he needed to, and he used all his pitches. He continues to be strong. It was another good day for Kuma."

Iwakuma is on schedule to pitch the second game of the regular season, against the A's on April 2. His Cactus League ERA stands at 3.60 with two starts remaining.

Montero quietly making a name for himself

SEA@LAA: Montero cuts down runner attempting to steal

PHOENIX -- Catcher Jesus Montero was robbed of a home run by a spectacular wall-climbing catch by A's center fielder Coco Crisp in the second inning of Seattle's 6-5 victory on Monday. But the youngster came back and ripped a leadoff double to right-center in his next at-bat to continue a strong spring.

While much of the talk this spring has focused on newcomers Michael Morse, Kendrys Morales, Raul Ibanez and Jason Bay, the 23-year-old Montero has quietly been hitting the ball very well while establishing himself as the regular catcher.

Montero went 1-for-3 with a double and run scored on Monday, putting his Cactus League average at .367, with a home run and four RBIs.

He would have had another homer and two more RBIs if not for Crisp's spectacular catch.

"Monte swung the bat well today," said manager Eric Wedge. "It's nice to see him hit the ball a long way to left-center, but even nicer to see him drive it to right-center the way he did."

With six catchers in camp initially, Montero's time was limited in the first weeks of Cactus League play. He now has 11 hits in 30 at-bats, while backup Kelly Shoppach is 7-for-23, Mike Zunino 5-for-22, Jesus Sucre 3-for-17, Ronny Paulino 1-for-14  and John Hicks 6-for-10.

Paulino and Hicks have both been sent to Minor League camp and further cuts will be coming, so Montero's playing time figures to increase as Wedge begins playing his regulars more in preparation for Opening Day.

Worth noting

• Young right-hander Brandon Maurer gets the start on Tuesday when the Mariners host the Giants in a 7:05 p.m. PT game in Peoria. The Mariners then have Wednesday off before Jon Garland and Erasmo Ramirez throw on Thursday night against the Cubs.

• Joe Saunders will throw five innings in a Minor League game on Tuesday, and Jeremy Bonderman is slated to do the same on Wednesday as the Mariners continue stretching out all their starting candidates.

• This is a big week for televised games, with ROOT Sports airing Tuesday's contest against the Giants, Thursday's against the Cubs (7:05 p.m.) and Saturday's against the Indians (1:05 p.m.). The only remaining TV game after that is the March 30 exhibition against the Rockies in Salt Lake City at 1:05 p.m.