SEATTLE &

A grinning Jarrod Washburn looked to his right and gave a little nod.




"We get our big dog back," he said, indicating youngster Felix Hernandez.




The Seattle Mariners will gladly welcome back Hernandez, their 21-year-old staff ace, from a nearly one-month absence when they open a telling three-game home series Tuesday night against the AL West-leading Los Angeles Angels.




But instead of entering the series playing a significant game of catch-up in the division, the Mariners are 17-16, playing above .500 and treading water despite a number of early season obstacles.




"We've been playing well. In the grand scheme of things you've always got to be looking forward, look ahead and expect more from yourself," outfielder Raul Ibanez said. "This is a good team, and we've maintained that the whole time."




The hurdles started early. There was the nightmare of weather-related postponements at the start of the season in Cleveland, the true effect of which will be felt beginning next Monday when the Mariners make the first of their three trips to Cleveland for makeup games.




Then Hernandez &

the hard-thrower being relied upon to carry the Mariners' pitching staff &

went down with a strained muscle in his right forearm on April 18 against Minnesota, and his much-anticipated return has been pushed back twice already.




Coupled with Hernandez's injury has been the inconsistency of Seattle's three new starters, who are a combined 6-11 with an 8.52 ERA in 19 starts. Of course, the struggles of No. 5 starter Jeff Weaver, who has turned his 1-year, $8,325,000 contract into an 0-6 record, 14.32 ERA and now a spot on the disabled list with shoulder tendinitis, skew the numbers. But Horacio Ramirez is 0-2 with a 13.17 ERA on the road, and Miguel Batista has pitched adequately in his three wins, and been woeful in his three losses.




So it's a little surprising that the Mariners are just two games out of first place entering their matchup with the Angels.




"We've definitely had a lot to fight through, that's for sure," Washburn said. "It's not the way we envisioned the season beginning, but we've found our way through it."




Seattle's bullpen has been a big factor. Closer J.J. Putz is 9-for-9 in save chances, and the Mariners' relievers rank sixth in baseball in ERA.




Perhaps the most telling stat &

Seattle is 16-0 when leading after seven innings.




The relievers will be called upon Tuesday night when Hernandez returns. Hernandez will likely be limited to 75-to-85 pitches, the first of three important matchups against the best of the Angels' staff. Hernandez will face Kelvim Escobar (4-1, 2.21); Cha Seung Baek will take on John Lackey (5-3, 2.70) on Wednesday; and Washburn matches up with Bartolo Colon (4-0, 3.66) on Thursday.




Hernandez, who threw his final bullpen session on Saturday, is eager to get back on the mound.




"It feels like it has been a year. It has been too long," he said. "It's not fun to sit down and do nothing."