By Bob Dutton The News Tribune
SEATTLE — There are no sure things in baseball until the final out. That’s part of its charm, that there are no absolutes. But give Felix Hernandez an early nine-run lead at Safeco Field against Tampa Bay?
That comes close, doesn’t it?
The Seattle Mariners staked their ace to that big cushion Monday night and rolled to a 12-5 victory over the Rays, the error-prone Rays, in the start to their three-game series.
“That was awesome,” Hernandez said. “Those guys, I appreciate that. They scored a lot of runs.”
It was 3-0 after one inning, 8-0 after two and 9-0 after three … which is not to say the closing innings passed quietly.
Hernandez (4-1) carried a four-hit shutout into the seventh before the Rays stirred to life with three straight singles, which loaded the bases with no outs.
Two strikeouts provided Hernandez with a chance to escape with a 9-0 lead intact, but Ryan Hanigan poked a bases-clearing double past center fielder James Jones.
“I should have had a deeper route to cut that ball off,” Jones said. “It could have been just one or two runs instead of clearing the bases on that.”
As it was, it ended Hernandez’s night but not without some harsh words for home-plate umpire Mark Ripperger.
Hernandez had squawked earlier in Hanigan’s at-bat in the belief that Ripperger missed a borderline pitch. Hernandez’s additional comments as he left the mound resulted in an ejection — the first of his career.
“I was asking about the Miami Heat score,” Hernandez deadpanned. “He didn’t even know … Those pitches right there, I was a little mad.”
All it meant, of course, was Hernandez couldn’t remain on the bench. Well, that an a near-certain fine. Afterward, the Mariners gathered around the televisions in the clubhouse to watch replays of the exchange.
“I’m sure he got his money’s worth,” manager Lloyd McClendon said. “I didn’t understand everything he said, but …”
The exchange was sharp, but it’s impact on the game was minimal.
Tom Wilhelmsen replaced Hernandez and yielded an RBI double to David DeJesus. That run was charged to Hernandez and closed his line at four runs and eight hits in 62⁄3 innings. He struck out seven and walked none.
Wilhelmsen worked a one-two-three eighth before Stefen Romero and Justin Smoak hit homers in the bottom of the inning. Yoervis Medina gave up one run in the ninth before closing out the victory.
Tampa Bay lefty Cesar Ramos (1-2) rebounded from a dreadful start, albeit one that wasn’t all his fault, by working into the seventh inning. He retired the last 12 batters he faced.
The Mariners won for the 13th time in 18 games and, at 20-18, jumped past Los Angeles into second place in the American League West Division. They trail first-place Oakland by 31⁄2 games.
The Mariners built a big early lead for Hernandez — three runs in the first; five in the second, when the Rays committed three errors in a show of abysmal defense; and another run in the third inning.
“That’s called being sub-optimal,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said. “You don’t like that, but we kept battling though it. That was such a big number to overcome.”
The lineup’s top four hitters — Jones, Romero, Robinson Cano and Corey Hart — were a combined 8-for-10 over the first three innings with eight runs and six RBI. Mike Zunino started the six-run second with a homer.
“When Felix sees a lot of runs coming up on the board early on,” Romero said, “it gives him a sense of security and a sense of relaxation out there. That’s what we want.”
All that did was reinforce the omens: Hernandez hadn’t faced the Rays since his perfect game here on Aug. 15, 2012, and he had never lost to them in eight previous career starts at Safeco.
Then again, he had never been thrown out before, either.
“I’m a pro baseball player now,” he joked. “My first ejection.”