KANSAS CITY, Mo. — One inning on the road did wonders for a Seattle Mariners team that seems to find Safeco Field baffling.
Granted, they were facing Jonathan Sanchez.
Still, five runs in the first inning — all produced on home runs from Casper Wells and Justin Smoak — ignited Seattle’s 9-4 victory over the Kansas City Royals.
“It’s not easy playing on the road, and a lot of guys had never seen this park,” Smoak said. “Getting out quick was big for us. It’s always big.”
That last time the Mariners scored five first-inning runs on the road was May 12, 2008.
Jason Vargas wasn’t particularly sharp, not in the bullpen warming up and not over the first few innings.
“I told (pitching coach) Carl Willis I felt like I couldn’t tell where the ball was going,” Vargas said.
It showed. Leading 5-0 after one inning, 7-0 after two, Vargas walked three batters early, including two in the third inning, setting up two Kansas City runs.
“The most impressive thing about Jason tonight was he fought through his command issues early and found it, gave us two good innings at the end with a lot of ground balls,” manager Eric Wedge said. “If it hadn’t been so hot, I might have let him go another inning.”
“It was the kind of game I had to feel it out,” Vargas said.
In 95-degree heat, six innings was enough — and Vargas pulled in his ninth win of the season when the bullpen finished strong for him. All that offense didn’t hurt, either.
“We hit a lot of balls hard (Sunday) and didn’t have anything to show for it,” Wedge said. “Tonight, we carried that over. We had — what? — 11 hits, and we probably hit six or seven hard outs, too.”
That wasn’t just manager-speak.
Smoak homered in the first inning, then lined out to left field in the seventh.
“That might be as hard as I’ve hit a ball right-handed all season,” Smoak said. “I hit it harder than I hit the home run.”
Wells had a home run, a triple and a career-high five RBI — in the first two innings. Did he think about the possibility of hitting for the cycle?
“It crossed my mind, then (Dustin) Ackley and a couple other guys were telling me ‘You can get the cycle’ and that was that,” Wells said, laughing. “I said ‘Thanks guys, that’s like talking about a perfect game …’”
Leading off again, Ackley walked, singled and homered, scoring three runs, pulling his batting average from .230 to .233. Jesus Montero and Ichiro Suzuki also had a pair of hits.
Much as there was to like about all that, Brandon League may have quietly inched his own stock higher Monday — and lefty specialist Lucas Luetge continued to do what he does best.
Former closer League was put in the game in the seventh inning with two outs, two men on, a run in and All-Star Billy Butler on the mound. League fell behind in the count, 3-1.
“I came back and went right at him with fastballs,” League said.
And struck Butler out looking. In the eighth inning, League worked a 1-2-3 inning.
“More sliders, which really helped set up my fastball,” he said.
And Luetge? The rookie was brought into the game with two outs in the ninth inning and two Royals on base to face the left-handed hitting Eric Hosmer.
Two pitches later, Hosmer popped out and Seattle had it’s 38th win. Luetge, picked up in December’s Rule 5 draft, has now held left-handed batters to a .140 batting average in 2012.
On the road this season, the Mariners are 21-26 and a far more productive-hitting team, but this was an all-around team victory. Wells added to his offensive creds by throwing out a Kansas City runner — ex-Mariner Yuniesky Betancourt — at third base to end the fourth inning.
Six relievers combined to get the final nine outs.
The Mariners did, however, have to pull shortstop Brendan Ryan from the game early. After hitting a ball off his left foot in batting practice, Ryan fouled on off his right knee in the second inning, and the bruise was enough for Wedge to yank him.
“The hope is we caught it, he got treatment all game and he’ll be fine,” Wedge said. “We’ll have to see.”
As for that Mariners offense, seven of their nine runs came off Sanchez, whose ERA is now 7.79 after lasting only 11⁄3 innings in this game.