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07/18/08 11:55 PM ET

Putz sharp in latest rehab work

Mariners closer could return Sunday, likely to be eased back

SEATTLE -- The return of reliever J.J. Putz to the Mariners' bullpen took one big step closer on Friday night.

In his second -- and perhaps final -- rehab assignment, the Seattle closer pitched 1 2/3 scoreless innings for Triple-A Tacoma. He struck out one, and 13 of the 17 pitches he threw were strikes.

"The earliest he could come back is on Sunday," interim manager Jim Riggleman said. "And that would be based on what [Putz] says, what the trainer says, what the manager says and what the pitching coach says on how he looked, how he felt.

"If he needs a little more time, we'll take that."

The Mariners basically have played most of the season without Putz, who missed most of April with a rib-cage injury. He returned to action in late April, only to suffer a torn fingernail that affected his effectiveness.

After saving 40 of his 42 save chances last season, when he became an All-Star for the first time and was later selected as the American League's Rolaids Relief Pitcher of the Year, Putz has not yet gotten untracked this season.

He is 2-3 with a 5.31 ERA in 20 relief appearances, with seven saves and three blown saves.

Riggleman said he probably would not immediately use Putz in a save situation.

"I think the first time one of our starters comes out in the middle of the game, we could put him in there at that point, get him into a less stressful situation," Riggleman said. "Maybe second time, we could use him closer to end of the game and turn the ninth inning over to him in the near future."

Putz went on the disabled list on June 13 after hyperextending his right elbow.

Jim Street is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.