Things are getting serious these days for the Mariners; serious enough even to generate a rare flash of emotion Monday night from Hisashi Iwakuma in a 2-0 victory over Minnesota at Safeco Field.
A small flash, to be sure. And easily missed without close attention. But the stoic right-hander pounded a fist to his glove after protecting a one-run lead by stranding runners at second and third in the seventh inning.
“I desperately wanted to get that out there,” Iwakuma said. “I was fighting tooth and nail. So I was very happy I was able to strike him out.”
Manager Lloyd McClendon didn’t see it.
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“I was on the floor,” he said, “with my own show of emotion.”
The Mariners did just enough offensively; they got homers from Mike Zunino and Michael Saunders against Twins starter Kevin Correia (4-11), who yielded just three other hits — all singles in his seven innings.
Correia deserved better.
Danny Farquhar worked a brisk eighth before Fernando Rodney completed the shutout and pushed his league-leading saves total to 26. The Mariners also moved back to a season-best nine games over .500 at 49-40.
Mostly, though, this was Iwakuma (7-4) appearing in top form after an inconsistent two months after returning from a finger injury that forced him to miss all of spring training.
“This was him hitting that stride,” Zunino said. “His split was sharp. His fastball was sharp. He had a little extra velo today. This was him getting back into that comfortable phase where he fits in.”
It should have produced a raucous post-game atmosphere in the Mariners’ clubhouse. It didn’t. The mood turned sharply muted as word spread of a decision to designate veteran catcher John Buck for assignment.
A corresponding move will be made prior to Tuesday’s game.
Iwakuma handed the two-run lead to Farquhar to start the eighth inning after stretching his career dominance over the Twins to 332/3 innings without allowing an earned run over five starts.
His biggest test came in the seventh when, leading 1-0, he yielded a leadoff single to ex-teammate Kendrys Morales on a grounder up the middle that beat the shift.
Morales lumbered to third on Oswaldo Arcia’s double into the right-center gap. Chris Parmelee replaced Morales as a pinch-runner but had to hold on Chris Colabello’s grounder to third.
Iwakuma stranded runners at second and third by striking out Sam Fuld on a full-count splitter. That prompted Iwakuma’s glove-pound. It was also his 10th strikeout, a season best.
“We knew we had first base open,” Zunino said, “so we could be really careful. We fell behind 2-0, and he worked his way back. At that point, we just had to go for it.
“It got to 3-2, and I thought the split was the right call. So did he. He was able to put it over the plate and just elevate it just enough to get him to bite.”
Iwakuma allowed four hits and didn’t walk a batter while throwing 105 pitches.
Saunders’ homer was a two-out drive to center later in the inning and came spiced with drama. Fuld made a leaping attempt at the wall — and it wasn’t initially clear whether he caught the ball or not as he fell to the ground.
“That’s a tough play that Sam makes more often than you think,” Saunders said. “As soon as I saw the play unwind, I knew I hit it well. I saw him go up to make a play on it.
“When he came down, I wasn’t sure what was going on so I kind of quickened my pace around the bases. It will be the least (celebrated) home run I’ll ever hit.”
There was no signal, either, from second-base umpire Gabe Morales as Saunders hesitantly circled the bases. Eventually, though, Fuld got to his feet ... without the ball.
“When I was in the dugout,” Saunders said, “I was still waiting for him to show the ball. Like I said, that’s a play that Sam makes more than you think. I’m glad he’s OK. I’m glad he didn’t catch the ball.”
Zunino’s homer, his 13th, was a one-out bomb in the second inning on a full-count fastball from Correia.
“It was one of those where I worked him from 0-2 to 3-2,” Zunino said. “I thought I saw everything he had. I was just not coming off the fastball 3-2, and I was able to get one. I didn’t try to do too much. I just barreled it up.”
Other than that, not much.
“All we needed was one tonight,” Saunders said, “and Kuma shut it down.”