The Mariners’ best was at his best, through 26 outs at least.
Seattle ace Felix Hernandez became just the seventh pitcher in team history to reach seven wins in a season before June 1, dominating the Los Angeles Angels until the last out Wednesday, striking out nine in a 3-1 win at Safeco Field.
Hernandez nearly pitched his first complete game since Aug. 27, 2012, but was pulled with two outs in the ninth inning after giving up an RBI double to Albert Pujols. Closer Fernando Rodney came in and promptly got David Freese to line out for his 13th save in 15 opportunities.
“One. Out. Away,” said a smiling Hernandez. “But it’s fine.”
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Manager Lloyd McClendon said the pitching change was a tough call, having witnessed such an electric performance.
“You have to weigh the player but you also have to weigh what’s good for the team,” McClendon said. “I had my closer up and he was ready to go, so we thought it was the best matchup and went with it.”
Hernandez improved to 7-1 this season — 5-1 after an M’s loss — and lowered his earned-run average to 2.57. The King has gone at least eight innings in three-straight starts and he’s won four in a row.
Seattle improved to 6-2 against the Angels, having not won a season series head-to-head since 2003.
The Mariners got Hernandez some early run support against starter C.J. Wilson (6-4) as catcher Mike Zunino slapped a two-out, two-run single in the second inning that scored Justin Smoak and Kyle Seager.
On a warm night in front of 13,895 fans, it would be all Seattle needed, even though Zunino hammered a solo home run in the eighth inning to claim all three RBI and give his batterymate some insurance.
“He does so much for us, keeping us in every ballgame he starts,” said Zunino, “and to give him some runs was huge.”
Hernandez said he felt he had good stuff from the very first inning, and it showed. He was untouchable his first time through the Angels lineup, retiring nine batters in order to start the game — five via strikeout.
“He was phenomenal,” said McClendon. “Right from the start, I thought he had great command of all his pitches. His fastball was really, really exceptional.”
Zunino also noticed the Angels struggled with the heat, noting in Hernandez’s last two starts “there has been a little extra to the fastball.”
Hernandez, when told he was hitting 95 mph at times, cracked a wide smile.
“Really?” he said. “Still got it … Still got it …”
The visitors didn’t get a base runner until Howie Kendrick led off the fourth inning with a solid single up the middle that whistled over Hernandez’s shoulder. That was followed by a Mike Trout walk, but the danger was quickly quelled when Pujols flied out, Zunino caught Kendrick stealing at third and Freese struck out swinging.
The Angels again had a runner in scoring position in the fifth, when Erick Aybar stole second after a one-out single, but Hernandez struck out Kole Calhoun and forced Hank Conger to fly out to center.
L.A. got its leadoff batter on base in the sixth on a four-pitch walk by Collin Cowgill, but Hernandez got Kendrick to ground into a double play before Trout fouled to Smoak, who made a fine catch up against the first row of fans.
“We really didn’t get a chance to pressure him much,” said Angels manager Mike Scioscia, “and the couple times we did, we couldn’t get the runs across.”
Wilson, for his part, settled down after the second inning, effectively retiring 11 in a row at one point were it not for a wild pitch on a strikeout that allowed James Jones to reach first. The veteran left-hander came into Wednesday’s game with 14 wins against the M’s, seven at Safeco, since 2006, tied for the most by a Seattle opponent in that span, but has lost three in a row in the matchup.
“It was a typical pitchers’ duel,” said Scioscia.
And vintage Felix.
Joshua Mayers: 206-464-3184
On Twitter @joshuamayers