It was only fitting. Felix Hernandez improved his historic run to 16 starts in a row of seven-plus innings and two or fewer runs allowed in an 11-1 Mariners’ rout of the Blue Jays Monday night. A Safeco Field crowd of 41,168, featuring a host of Blue Jays fans who annually make the three hour trip south, was treated to a scene out of “The Natural.”
As Seattle (63-55) batted around in the bottom of the sixth, a lightning bolt lit up the skyline and thunder rumbled in a series charged with playoff implications for both.
The Mariners fed off it. A beleaguered Toronto squad, fresh off a 6-5, 19-inning win over Detroit followed by a cross-country flight, wilted.
“It was awesome,” Mike Zunino, 2-for-3 with a triple and two RBI, said. “To have that (atmosphere), and come out and play a good ballgame . . . We definitely fed off (the crowd’s) energy.”
Manager Lloyd McClendon was impressed by the energy as well.
“I thought it was great. I was glad we had a lot of fans here,” McClendon said.
The setting set the stage for Hernandez (13-3, 1.95 ERA), in the midst of the best run of his career. With 30,000 “K Towels” twirling in the air, Hernandez worked through seven innings, yielding three hits and one run to go with eight strikeouts.
“I’m running out of words for Felix. Tonight he really stepped up and gave us a great performance,” McClendon said.
The lone run came in the fourth inning. Jose Bautista crushed a 2-2 hanging changeup into the Mariners’ bullpen to spot the Blue Jays a 1-0 lead.
Seattle answered immediately with the heart of its order against 23-year-old right-hander Drew Hutchison. Robinson Cano worked a walk to lead off the inning and Kendrys Morales doubled. Greenlighted on a 3-0 pitch, Kyle Seager drove center-fielder Colby Rasmus to the base of the wall for a game-tying sacrifice fly. A well-placed blooper off Zunino’s bat landed just inside the right-field line to bring home the go-ahead run.
Two innings after Hutchison labored through a 27-pitch fourth, Seattle struck again with Cano as catalyst. The second baseman hit his first solo home run of the season to kick-start an inning that saw the M’s send 11 men to the plate, score seven runs on six hits and two walks, with one bolt of lightning.
Among the big hits were an opposite-field triple by Zunino, which banged off the wall in right, an RBI triple by Brad Miller and a two-RBI double by Dustin Ackley. Cano capped the scoring, narrowly missing his second home run when his double hit high off the wall in left center.
Given the wealth of support, Hernandez struck out two hitters in the seventh before ending his night. Relievers Joe Beimel and Danny Farquhar each pitched 1-2-3 innings to close out.
The win was Seattle’s sixth in its last seven games, closing to within one game of sagging Detroit’s lead in the American League’s second wild card.
OF James Jones filled the 25-man roster spot vacated by the demotion of Erasmo Ramirez prior to Monday’s game. McClendon said Jones’ role will be as pinch-runner and defensive replacement in his third stint with team in 2014. With Jackson entrenched as center fielder, Jones will play the corner outfield spots . . . Logan Morrison extended his hitting streak to 12 games with a third-inning single . . . Hernandez is 9-2 with a 1.41 ERA and 134 strikeouts for 16-start run.