SEATTLE (AP) -- The sighs of relief blew through Safeco Field like reviving trade winds off nearby Puget Sound.
The "real" Felix Hernandez was back.The 2005 wonder returned to his rookie form by allowing one run and striking out eight in a season-high 7 2/3 innings, leading the Mariners to an 8-1 victory over the slumping Tampa Bay Devil Rays on Tuesday night."This is the kind of guy who can become an ace," All-Star outfielder Ichiro Suzuki said.Suzuki helped with three hits and two RBI as Seattle won for the third time in four games following a four-game losing streak.Tampa Bay lost for the seventh time in nine games and fell to 2-8 against the AL West.Hernandez, 20, was 4-4 with a 2.67 ERA, 77 strikeouts and only 23 walks last season, electrifying an otherwise dismal Mariners summer. But so far this year, he had been a contributor to Seattle's skittish 2006. He was 1-4 and had allowed six home runs in six starts, one more than he had allowed in 12 starts last season.He had also surrendered four runs over five innings in each of his previous two starts -- and at least that many in four of six starts overall.Was he relieved?Hernandez nodded and sighed through closed lips after allowing five hits for his first home win in four starts."Yeah, it feels good it's finally here," he said through an interpreter.His offense may have felt the same way. Seattle scored as many runs Tuesday as in its previous three games combined.Kenji Johjima's two-run single gave Hernandez the lead in the second inning. Carl Everett added to it with a solo home run off starter Doug Waechter (0-2) just inside the right-field foul pole in the fifth.It was Seattle's first home run since May 1, a span of nine games. Everett's homer ended a string of 25 singles for a Seattle offense that has been anemic most of the season.The Mariners then piled on three runs off Waechter and a fourth off Brian Meadows in the eighth -- with all the RBI on more singles. One was Yuniesky Betancourt's third hit. Suzuki followed with his third single and Jose Lopez with a two-run hit.Waechter allowed a season-high 11 hits and seven earned runs in seven-plus innings.Hernandez and pitching coach Rafael Chaves both said the right-hander had been opening his front shoulder before delivering. That caused control problems and had many Mariners fans wondering, "What's wrong with Felix?""I would say if he's not back all the way, he's pretty close," Chaves said.Manager Mike Hargrove reiterated his belief that Hernandez not throwing for 10 days because of shin splints at the end of spring training "had him all discombobulated."Hernandez agreed, saying, "I was completely disoriented."Not against Tampa Bay."His fastball was electric," said Carl Crawford, who was struck out twice by Hernandez but did have his AL-leading 12th stolen base of the season in the first inning. Hernandez then got Aubrey Huff to foul out to end that rally.The first two Devil Rays reached in the second, but Hernandez got Travis Lee to ground into a double play and then struck out Russell Branyan.Joey Gathright led off the Tampa Bay third with an infield single. A hit by Julio Lugo and a sacrifice fly by Jonny Gomes scored Gathright to cut Seattle's lead to 2-1. Lugo then stole third, but Hernandez got Huff to ground weakly to first base to end that threat.Lee doubled off Hernandez to begin the Devil Rays' seventh. But Hernandez then struck out Branyan for the third time, buzzed a 95 mph fastball past a flinching Gathright for another strikeout and then got Lugo to ground out for a convincing end to Tampa Bay's final rally.Hernandez struck out four of his final five batters. When Hargrove came out to replace him with George Sherrill after 108 pitches, it fulfilled the team's promise to limit Hernandez's pitches throughout this season.It also brought a cascade of boos from the Safeco Field crowd of 19,726. Many of the fans then gave the departing Hernandez a standing ovation.Hernandez touched the bill of his cap."It was just such a proud moment for me," Hernandez said. "I thank the fans for reacting that way."
Suzuki has raised his average from .177 to .288 in three weeks. When asked if he was now hitting the way he wanted to, Suzuki replied, "When was I not?" ... Rafael Soriano pitched the final 1 1/3 innings for his first save since July 25, 2003. ... The Devil Rays are 13-21, the same record they had after 34 games last
season. They finished 2005 at 67-95. ... Gathright, who has been clocked at 6.1 seconds in a 60-yard dash, used that speed on a turning, running catch on a liner by Jeremy Reed in the fourth. In the fifth, Gathright sprinted, jumped and caught Adrian Beltre's deep drive before smacking his back into the left-center field fence.