By NICOLINO DIBENEDETTO
(AP) — The Baltimore Orioles’ offense is sputtering, and that can’t be very comforting to Wei-Yin Chen.
Facing Hisashi Iwakuma may only increase the burden on Chen.
While the Orioles try to solve their recent funk at the plate against Iwakuma, Chen looks to win a career-high fourth straight start in the opener of a four-game series with the Seattle Mariners at Safeco Field on Thursday night.
Baltimore (55-45) leads the AL East by three games, but its lineup will likely need to show some improvement if that gap is going to widen.
The Orioles are batting a big league-worst .205 since July 9 and .167 in their past four games, a tremendous departure from their season mark of .262 that ranks fifth in the majors.
Those recent issues continued Wednesday, when they mustered six hits – five singles – before reliever Brian Matusz walked in the decisive run in the eighth inning of a 3-2 defeat to the Los Angeles Angels.
Manny Machado missed a second straight game with back spasms, and it’s unclear if he will return Thursday. He hit .360 with four doubles and two homers in six meetings with Seattle last year.
“It’s a lot better,” manager Buck Showalter told MLB’s official website before Wednesday’s game. “I look for him to be back shortly, depending on how you define the word shortly.”
The drop in offensive production could be a concern for Chen (10-3, 4.21 ERA), who owns the highest ERA for any AL pitcher with at least 10 wins and the league’s highest run support average of 6.36.
The left-hander has needed the help while winning three straight starts behind a 4.32 ERA, capitalizing on 14 runs of support. He got half of them Saturday, when he allowed three runs in five innings of an 8-4 win at Oakland.
Things may get tougher against the Mariners (53-48) since he’s 0-2 with a 4.56 ERA in four starts against them while being backed by six total runs. He surrendered five runs in four innings of an 8-3 defeat in his most recent visit to Seattle on May 1, 2013.
Run support may be tough to come by with the Mariners turning to Iwakuma (8-4, 2.95) following Wednesday’s 3-2 loss to the New York Mets.
The right-hander is 3-0 over his last four starts with a 1.57 ERA, no walks and 28 strikeouts in 28 2-3 innings.
Iwakuma allowed two runs in seven innings of a 3-2, 16-inning defeat to the Angels on Friday.
That start came on five days’ rest, as will this one, and he’s 2-1 with a 1.98 ERA in four starts this year with that much time between outings.
“The feel of pitching is just not the same after four days off,” Iwakuma said. “It’s just different. Totally different.”
He didn’t get a decision in his only start against Baltimore on July 2, 2012, when the only runs he allowed came on a three-run homer by Chris Davis before exiting after the fifth inning of a 6-3 win at Safeco.
Davis, though, is 2 for 13 with no home runs and eight strikeouts in his last four games, and he’s 3 for 22 over his last six a
Dustin Ackley is giving Seattle some offense, batting .458 with four doubles during a six-game hitting streak. However, he’s 1 for 7 against Chen.
Newly acquired Kendrys Morales could provide some more, though he isn’t expected to join the team until Friday. The Mariners brought him back Thursday, obtaining the first baseman from Minnesota for minor-league pitcher Stephen Pryor.
Morales hit 23 home runs and drove in 80 runs for the Mariners last season, but turned down a $14.1 million qualifying offer and signed with the Twins on June 8. He’s hitting .234 with 11 doubles, one homer and 18 RBIs in 39 games this season.
Updated July 24, 2014
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