By Larry LaRue The News Tribune
SEATTLE — For four innings, Hisashi Iwakuma teased the Seattle Mariners fans at Safeco Field. What he did to the Minnesota Twins was worse.
Iwakuma was perfect through four innings, merely rock solid for seven innings as he held them without an earned run in what became Seattle’s 5-3 victory — the Mariners third in a row.
Home runs by John Jaso and Miguel Olivo hurt Twins starter Nick Blackburn early and three fifth-inning hits from Trayvon Robinson, Eric Thames and Dustin Ackley chased him.
A crowd of 22,602 gave a nearly two minute pre-game standing ovation to Felix Hernandez, who threw a perfect game Wednesday, then began stirring nervously once the game began.
Iwakuma retired the first 12 Minnesota batters in order, giving the Mariners a stretch of 42 consecutive retired hitters spanning three games.
“I saw Felix pitch the other day and it was awesome,” Iwakuma said. “Today, I tried to do what he did. I did — for four innings.”
Impressive as that might have been, Iwakuma’s fifth inning likely kept the game from turning around.
Helped by a Brendan Ryan error, the Twins score an unearned run and loaded the bases with one out and the Mariners’ lead a suddenly shaky-looking 3-1.
“I tried to be energized, confident, and I concentrated on striking the batter out,” Iwakuma said.
It worked — he got the final two batters that inning on strikes.
“That was a great job he did in the fifth inning,” manager Eric Wedge said. “That was a separator, and then we got a couple more runs in the sixth.
Robinson blooped a little chip shot over third base, then hustled it into a double that may not have gone 120 feet. Shortest two-base hit of his career?
“I’d have to say ‘yes,’” Robinson said. “I just told myself I could get two, and I got it.”
Thames singled Robinson home and Ryan bunted Thames into scoring position. Ackley made that pay off with a single up the middle that produced his 40th RBI.
Up 5-1 after seven innings and 97 pitches, Iwakuma had done his job, and came out for reliever Stephen Pryor.
“Starting pitching is where it all begins, and your starters either give you a chance to win or not,” Wedge said. “Iwakuma has gotten consistently better all year.”
Pryor gave up back-to-back, two-out home runs in the eighth by Joe Mauer and Josh Willingham — Willingham’s 31st of the season — to bring the Twins to within two runs.
That brought Wedge out of the dugout and lefty specialist Lucas Luetge out of the bullpen to face Justin Morneau.
One pitch later, the inning was over.
In the ninth inning, the game was handed to Tom Wilhelmsen. Three quick outs later, the Mariners were 56-64 and Wilhelmsen had his 17th save.
The win went to Iwakuma, the 31-year-old right-hander who was making just his eighth major league start. The last man on a big-league roster to appear in a game this season, Iwakuma has done the patience thing.
Now, he wants to pitch every fifth day — and he’s shown he can win. Iwakuma has won two of his past three starts and had two no-decisions despite allowing three runs in 11 innings.
The Mariners made sure early that Blackburn and his 7.33 earned run average didn’t get away from them.
Michael Saunders singled with one out in the first inning, stole his 16th base and then trotted home when designated hitter Jaso hammered a line drive home run into the right field stands.
It was his eighth.
Opening the second inning, Blackburn had to face a long-time nemesis in Olivo, who owned a career .471 batting average and three career homers against the right-hander.
Second inning, Olivo hit a ball off the second-deck façade in left.
“The pitches he’s trying to make ‘in’ and misses over the plate wind up in the seats,” manager Ron Gardenhire said. “They’re not singles or doubles, they’re in the seats. He’s got to make better pitches. That’s the ball game.”
The victory was Seattle’s 56th of the season, pushed their record at Safeco Field to 28-30. It’s the closest the Mariners have been to .500 in either category in months.
Since the All-Star break, the Mariners are 12-5 at home — 10-1 in their last 11 games there.
Tonight, they’ll send Jason Vargas to the mound.
“These guys are competing not only as individuals but as five guys,” Wedge said of his rotation. “It’s been better and better.”