After losing his first six road starts, Joe Saunders has won three of his last four, his most impressive performance coming Sunday at the Great American Ballpark as the Mariners not only beat Cincinnati 3-1, but took the series 2-1, easing their embarrassment of blowing a 3-1 lead Saturday and losing 13-4.
The Mariners (39-49), 4-2 on the road trip, managed six hits, but homers by Nick Franklin and Justin Smoak were all that Saunders required. The lefty, who defeated Texas earlier in the trip, worked 7.0 innings, allowed one run on six hits, struck out two and didn’t walk a batter, throwing 64 of 101 pitches for strikes. Saunders has walked four batters in his last four starts covering 23.0 innings.
After Charlie Furbush delivered a 1-2-3 eighth, Tom Wilhelmsen, returning to the closer’s role, needed only five pitches against Cincinnati’s Nos. 4-6 hitters for his 18th save in 23 chances. Wilhelmsen got Brandon Phillips on a fly to right, Jay Bruce on first-pitch grounder to second and Todd Frazier on a fly to right.
Returning to the lineup after a day off to rest a sore kneecap (except for pinch-hitting duty), Franklin homered off Arroyo to right on a 1-1 count, his sixth of the season, to give the Mariners a 1-0 lead, and Kyle Seager and Raul Ibanez followed with singles, giving Seattle runners at first and second with one out. The Mariners couldn’t convert the opportunity, Smoak whiffing for the second out and Endy Chavez lining out.
But Smoak came back in the third and ripped a two-run homer, his seventh, scoring Seager, who walked on a full count, giving the Mariners a 3-0 lead.
Working quickly, Saunders (7-8) allowed only two baserunners to reach third in the first six innings, at one point retiring 11 consecutive batters. Saunders finally caved in the seventh when back-to-back doubles by Frazier and Chris Helsey made it 3-1.
With his first-inning single, All-Star snub Ibanez extended his hitting streak to 12 games.
The Mariners return to Safeco Field Monday night for their final home stand before the All-Star break, beginning with four against the Boston Red Sox. All-Star RHP Felix Hernandez (8-4, 2.69) will go opposite LHP Jon Lester (8-4, 4.41). Lester is a Tacoma native who graduated from Bellarmine Prep.
Following the Red Sox series, the Mariners play the L.A. Angels in a three-game set.
NOTES: The Mariners are 10-2 against Cincinnati since interleague play began in 1997 . . . Manager Eric Wedge said Sunday that club plans to send Michael Morse (right quad strain) out on a rehab assignment to AAA Tacoma during the coming week . . . Wedge gave Kendrys Morales the day off Sunday, saying Morales needed some rest . . . Although the Mariners went 4-2 on the road trip, they are 2-for-their-last-32 with runners in scoring position.