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Originally published June 23, 2012 at 10:34 PM | Page modified June 24, 2012 at 10:01 PM

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Hernandez has strong start, gets big hit

Felix Hernandez turned in his second strong outing in a row as the Mariners whipped the Padres 5-1 at Petco Park.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Sunday

Mariners @ Padres, 1:05 p.m., ROOT Sports

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SAN DIEGO — Felix Hernandez showed distinct signs Saturday that he's just about out of his prolonged and troubling slump.

But enough about Hernandez's hitting. He pitched pretty well, too.

In fact, Hernandez turned in his second strong outing in a row as the Mariners whipped the Padres 5-1 at Petco Park for their first win this season against San Diego in five tries.

"Felix stepped up tonight and we needed him to," Mariners manager Eric Wedge said. "Our starters have been struggling and he's our guy, and we really needed him to step up tonight and he did. And he got a big hit for us."

It was Hernandez's first victory since May 21, a drought that included a three-start stretch in which he was 0-2 with a 7.41 earned-run average. That struggle elicited much debate about what was wrong with Hernandez, who has set such a high bar for himself that any and all hiccups tend to be hyper-analyzed.

Hernandez answered the questions the only way he knows how: By shutting down opponents. After working seven strong innings his last time out against the Giants (one earned run, but no decision, in the Mariners' 2-1 victory), Hernandez was back in vintage form against San Diego.

In seven innings, he again gave up just one run on six hits, striking out 10 and walking one. It was Hernandez's 18th career game of 10 or more strikeouts, his second this year.

"I've been more consistent, throwing strikes," Hernandez said. "My fastball has been pretty good, and when the fastball is good, the breaking ball is way better."

Said Wedge: "You're seeing a little more life on his fastball and that runs to his release point on his curveball, the slider, the changeup. All that helps him get out in front. And when he does that and is on the plate and down, he's about as good as it gets."

Hernandez also helped his cause considerably in the second-most memorable at-bat of his career. The first, of course, was the grand slam he hit off two-time Cy Young winner Johan Santana at Shea Stadium in New York on June 23, 2008.

Yes, it was the fourth anniversary of that game, as Hernandez said he was reminded repeatedly.

Stepping to the plate for the first time this season in the second inning, with runners on second and third, Hernandez laced a double into the right-field corner off Padres starter Jason Marquis. Two runs scored, and Hernandez seemed to be suppressing a giggle as he stood at second.

"I was going to swing at the first pitch. I knew it was a fastball," he said. "Try and hit it good."

Hernandez had gone 1 for 16 (.063) in the ensuing four years since his salami, and had just two other hits in his career in 25 at-bats. He struck out and grounded out in his next two at-bats, and was called off the on-deck circle in the eighth when the Mariners loaded the bases, ending his bid for a grand-slam reprise. Pinch-hitter John Jaso grounded out to second, but Hernandez said he didn't question Wedge's decision.

"No, no, no. I just wanted to win today. I don't care about hitting. I just want to win the game."

Still, it was Hernandez's pitching that was the big story. He got two big breaks that helped him get out of potential jams. In the fourth, the Padres had first and third with one out when Everth Cabrera smoked a ground ball right at shortstop Brendan Ryan, who niftily converted it into an inning-ending double play. With first and second occupied and one out in the seventh, Nick Hundley hit the ball even harder — but right at second baseman Dustin Ackley, who doubled the runner off second.

"That was unbelievable," Hernandez said of those plays. "That's how you win games, with defense and pitching good.

The M's, meanwhile, got a solo home run from Michael Saunders in the third, his eighth homer of the year. Seven have come away from Safeco Field, and six have been solos. Saunders also had a single, a walk and two stolen bases.

Ichiro singled home the Mariners' fifth run in the fourth. He had two hits — plus his first walk in 19 games since returning to the leadoff spot — and is 10 for 19 in his past four games. Ichiro hadn't drawn a base on balls since May 29.

Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or lstone@seattletimes.com.

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