NEW YORK – For the past two days, the Seattle Mariners have looked like anything but a last-place team – one that’s double-digit games under .500 and on the verge of trading away one of the league’s best pitchers with an eye toward 2011.
But for the past two days, it has been the Mariners (33-44), last in the American League West, who have looked like the best team in baseball, not the defending World Series champion New York Yankees.
Led by Felix Hernandez’s brilliant pitching and Michael Saunders’ first multihomer game of his career, the Mariners’ rolled to a 7-0 win at Yankee Stadium on Wednesday.
A day after watching teammate Cliff Lee pick up a complete-game 7-4 win Tuesday, Hernandez stepped to the mound and was even better.
The right-hander allowed two hits while striking out 11 and walking three in posting the fourth shutout of his career.
“His stuff was as good as we’ve seen all year long,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi said.
It’s as good as Mariners manager Don Wakamatsu has seen, too.
“That might be the best pure stuff I have seen him have in a ballgame,” Wakamatsu said. “It is awfully hard to catch, moving all over the place. He kept them off-balance, was efficient with his pitches and was dominating.”
When told that Wakamatsu thought it was his best outing, a devilish grin came to Hernandez’s face.
“Yeah, I was pretty good today,” he said, chuckling. “I got good run support today. We played good defense. That’s what we do. That’s how we win games.”
And that’s one of the reasons why the Mariners haven’t won more games this season – a lack of run support for the pitching staff.
It was mentioned to Wakamatsu that the past two games were just the second time this season that Lee and Hernandez had won back-to-back starts.
“It’s not so much the pitching performances, but the lack of run support,” Wakamatsu said. “We’ve played in a lot of one-run ballgames that we haven’t won.”
Hernandez got his run support Wednesday night, but he got it in a very un-Mariners fashion:
Four home runs.
The Mariners had not hit four homers in a game this season, and the last time it happened was Sept. 27, 2009 against the San Diego Padres.
But for a night, the Mariners did a nice impression of the Bronx Bombers. Milton Bradley started the long-ball parade in the second inning, when he launched a solo home run over the center-field wall off Yankees starter Javier Vazquez to give Seattle a 1-0 lead.
The Mariners’ lead was 3-0 after Saunders led off the third with a solo homer to right center, and Jose Lopez added an RBI single. In the seventh, Russell Branyan provided plenty of cushion for Hernandez by belting his first homer since being traded back to the Mariners on Sunday – a two-run blast to left-center. And in the eighth, Saunders capped off a brilliant game, one that also featured a run-saving leaping catch in the first inning, by yanking a “hanging slider” from Chad Gaudin to right for another two-run homer.
Saunders has seven home runs in 106 at-bats, tying him for third most on the team. A year ago, he was called up and had four extra base hits (three doubles and a triple) in 122 at-bats before being taken out of the lineup.
“A lot of people ask me, what was the biggest difference between this call-up and last year’s call-up,” he said. “This time around, I’m a lot more confident coming in. I try to not put too much pressure on myself to perform, and try to come out every day I get the opportunity, just play hard and have fun.”
Branyan can see the difference from the kid who was called up last season to the player Saunders is now.
“Last year, he was in the lineup and just playing the game,” Branyan said. “Now he’s showing his intelligence for the game, trying to learn the pitchers in the league. So far, from what I’ve seen of him, he’s having some good at-bats. He’s not a bad guy to have in that No. 9 hole.”
Given some run support early and a big cushion late, Hernandez went right at Yankees. He allowed a double to Mark Teixeira to start the fourth. That should have been his only hit allowed as Colin Curtis, an Issaquah High graduate, was credited with a double after second baseman Chone Figgins lost his shallow pop up in the early-twilight skies.
“The dude’s got good stuff,” Yankees right fielder Nick Swisher said. “He was getting that low strike tonight. That makes for a long day.”
The first five hitters in the Yankees’ lineup went 1-for-15 with seven strikeouts – including two each by Derek Jeter, Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez.
“It was a little rough in the first inning, but after that I settled down a little bit,” Hernandez said. “I threw a lot of strikes. That’s all you need to do against this team. This team is pretty good so you need to throw a lot of strikes.”