SEATTLE -- When the Mariners landed Justin Smoak as the main piece from Texas in the Cliff Lee trade in 2010, they were hoping they had acquired a middle-of-the-order slugger for years to come.
In his first full season in Seattle last year, though, the switch-hitting first baseman struggled, connecting on 15 home runs and batting .234. As 2012 began, the frustrations continued, but after a 10-game road trip, Smoak returned home to face his former team Monday with a bit of a hot bat.
In his last nine games -- all on the road -- Smoak is hitting .351 (13-for-37) with two home runs, two doubles and four RBIs to raise his season average to .218. It's a trend Smoak is encouraged by, but he's not where he wants to be quite yet.
"It's just a matter of keep grinding out at-bats, keep having good at-bats," he said. "I'm seeing [the ball] better. I feel like I've got more of a rhythm up there now than what I had early on. Early on I felt a little robotic, but now I feel like I have more rhythm.
"I think it's more just stay in my zone and swing at pitches in my zone. Don't try and get out of it, don't swing at something the pitcher wants me to swing at, swing at a ball I want to hit. And when I get it, don't miss it. That's the thing right now, trying to square balls up and not foul off so many balls, not miss pitches I feel I should hit."
Smoak believes it's helped to be back in the lineup on a regular basis after a hamstring issue early in the season caused him to miss days here and there. Mariners manager Eric Wedge has stated multiple times this season that he continues to see encouraging things from his first baseman at the plate, but up until a 3-for-4 night against the Yankees on May 11, the results had not followed.
"His approach has been better -- his approach and his mindset, his hitting zone," Wedge said. "There's just a lot of different things, most are on the intangible side of things, that have really helped him a great deal. And I think it's showing up for him production wise."
Jaso catches Felix for first time this season
SEATTLE -- The much-anticipated matchup between the Rangers' Yu Darvish and the Mariners' Felix Hernandez dominated headlines leading up to Monday's series opener. After all, it's not every day you have pitchers of that caliber facing off.
But as the attention focused on the two right-handers, it should be noted who caught Hernandez -- John Jaso. Mainly behind the plate because Miguel Olivo is on the disabled list, Jaso has been sharing catching duties with Jesus Montero. And for the first time, Jaso caught Hernandez.
"It only becomes difficult when the ball moves in a different direction than you are expecting," Jaso said. "It's different with a guy like Felix, because you get two strikes on a hitter and you can pick four different pitches and four different locations to get the guy out and all four would work."
"John's come a long way," Mariners manager Eric Wedge said. "He's much more comfortable than he was earlier. It's a good opportunity for him to catch Felix. Again, we're mixing and matching with him and Montero. With Montero, we've got to make sure we give him the time off he needs."
Montero, who received two off days in a row before catching the last two games of the Mariners' recent road trip, started at designated hitter Monday.
Olivo begins rehab assignment at Triple-A
SEATTLE -- Miguel Olivo, on the 15-day disabled list with a right groin strain, started behind the plate and hit third for Triple-A Tacoma on Monday night, going 1-for-3 with a run before being lifted after the fifth inning as the Mariners catcher began his rehab assignment.
"We're going to catch him tonight, DH him tomorrow, catch him again on Wednesday and then go from there," Mariners manager Eric Wedge said.
Wedge also noted that it's not necessarily important for Olivo to catch back-to-back games before he rejoins the Mariners, but he does need to stay behind the dish for a full nine innings.
While Olivo has been on the DL, Jesus Montero and John Jaso have been sharing catching duties.
The Mariners returned home Monday night having already played 28 road games, the most in the Major Leagues. Seattle improved its road record to 12-16 with a three-game weekend sweep at Colorado.
"It's great to be home," Mariners manager Eric Wedge said prior to Monday's contest with the Rangers. "I mean, we haven't been home a great deal this year, so these guys are excited to be home, I'm excited to be home and ready to play some more baseball."
A key factor in Seattle wins is how the Mariners do at the plate with men in scoring position. During the recent 10-game road trip, the Mariners went just 2-for-43 with runners in scoring position in losses but 12-for-34 in victories.
The Mariners have tripled in three straight games, which is the first time they've done that since July 27-29, 2006.