SEATTLE — The King reclaimed his crown Thursday night.
Felix Hernandez flashed back to his imperious self, and the Seattle Mariners opened their 2018 season on a winning note, defeating the Cleveland Indians 2-1 at Safeco Field.
Before a sellout crowd of 47,149 — the largest regular season crowd in Safeco history — Hernandez tossed 5 1/3 scoreless innings to lead the Mariners to victory. Nelson Cruz’s first-inning two-run home run provided all the offense Seattle needed.
Hernandez is coming off the most difficult season of his major-league career. Injuries limited him to 16 starts in 2017, and three straight seasons of declining effectiveness had observers speculating whether Hernandez, whose 32nd birthday is right around the corner, was falling victim to Father Time.
But Hernandez showed glimpses of his past Thursday, allowing just two hits and two walks while striking out four. He was removed after 83 pitches, 49 of which were strikes, because of an abbreviated spring training that was the result of taking a line drive off his pitching elbow. His fastball sat at 91 mph and he recorded strikeouts with his fastball, curve and changeup.
Hernandez held his own against Cleveland starter Corey Kluber. The reigning American League Cy Young Award winner pitched an eight-inning complete game, allowing six hits and a walk while striking out eight in the loss.
Ichiro Suzuki, returning to the Mariners after making 10 All-Star games during his stint in Seattle from 2001-12, started in left field and finished 0-for-2 before being removed in the field to start the top of the eighth.
The Mariners had a dream start to the game. It began with Hernandez tossing a 1-2-3 top of the first, getting weak contact on all three batters. Then in the bottom of the inning Cruz, first-pitch swinging, took Kluber out to dead center for a two-run homer, staking Seattle to an early 2-0 lead.
Cleveland finally got on the scoreboard against Seattle’s bullpen in the top of the seventh. With a runner on second and two out, Yan Gomes hit a pop-up into left center that dropped just between three defenders as the Indians cut the deficit to 2-1.
Things got hairy for Seattle in the top of the ninth as closer Edwin Diaz hit consecutive batters with one out, with pinch runner Rajai Davis stealing third to bring the tying run 90 feet away. But Diaz fanned Gomes and Tyler Naquin to end it and pick up the save.