— Michael Saunders’ three-run homer helped Seattle to a 5-1 win Saturday night at Safeco Field.

The Seattle Mariners cruised through a typically tidy game — getting quality pitching from Felix Hernandez and a minimal amount of offense — when something out of the ordinary broke out.

Nearly a week’s worth of runs by the Mariners.

They scored four times in the sixth inning, as many runs as they’d produced in their three previous games combined and beat the Cincinnati Reds for their third straight win, 5-1.

Michael Saunders delivered a blow that made everyone relax, a three-run homer with two outs in the sixth that gave the Mariners a four-run lead. Hernandez handled the rest, striking out nine and holding the Reds to five hits in the Mariners’ second straight complete game by a starting pitcher — Hernandez’s second this season to bring his record to 5-5.

“It was a total momentum shift when Saunders hit the big home run,” manager Don Wakamatsu said. “It gave Felix a little more life out there, too, because we hadn’t given him a whole lot of run support.”

It has been puny.

The Mariners hadn’t scored as many as five runs in any of Hernandez’s starts since May 18 and on Saturday it seemed they were headed toward another hold-your-breath finish.

Ichiro Suzuki’s solo homer gave the Mariners an early 1-0 lead in the third inning, but the Reds got their lone run on Jonny Gomez’s RBI single off Hernandez in the fourth.

After that, Hernandez allowed only one hit to the next 14 hitters.

Wakamatsu said that was the key to the complete game by Hernandez, who’d thrown a career-high 128 pitches in his previous start on June 13 at San Diego.  Wakamatsu pulled him with one out in the ninth inning of that one.

“He went quite a few pitches last outing and we earmarked not going over 120,” Wakamatsu said. “I was awfully happy I didn’t have to go get him out there.”

Hernandez, still throwing a 95 mph fastball and sharp-breaking curve in the ninth inning wasn’t about to exit before the final out of the game.

“I was going to finish this,” Hernandez said. “He wasn’t going to take me out after eighth.”

Wakamatsu didn’t despite Joey Votto’s one-out single in the ninth. Hernandez got Scott Rolen on a fly ball for the second out and Gomes on his ninth strikeout of the game.

It continued a run of stellar starting pitching that began Wednesday when Jason Vargas held the Cardinals to one run at St. Louis. Cliff Lee pitched a complete-game shutout over the Reds on Friday, and Hernandez gave the Mariners their first back-to-back complete-game victories since 1996 when Bob Wells beat the Angels and Bob Wolcott beat the A’s.

By the end Saturday, the Mariners were a team without tension for the first time in nearly three weeks. The last time they won by more than three runs was June 1 when they beat the Twins 7-1.

The sixth inning made all the difference.

Jose Lopez hit a leadoff single against Reds starter Sam LeCure and Franklin Gutierrez doubled to put runners on second and third with nobody out.  Josh Wilson popped out to first base for the first out before strategy broke out.

With a base open, the Reds intentionally walked Casey Kotchman — who entered the game with a .184 average — and gambled that they could get Rob Johnson to hit a ground ball.

Instead, he launched a sacrifice fly to deep center field that scored Lopez to give the Mariners a 2-1 lead.

LeCure’s next pitch was an inner-half fastball that opposing pitchers have haunted the 23-year-old Saunders with since his first call-up to the majors last season.  He has worked hard to handle that pitch though, and this time he got all of it.

Saunders pulled it deep over the right-field fence, off the facade of the second deck, for his fourth home run this season. It was only the seventh three-run homer by the Mariners this season.

“I think it boils down to a lot of work and coming into my second call-up,” Saunders said. “I told myself I was going to be aggressive and not put too much pressure on myself.”

In return, it eased the pressure off Hernandez as he cruised to his 33rd career victory at Safeco Field, tying him with Freddy Garcia and Joel Pineiro for second place in all-time victories at the stadium. Jamie Moyer is the leader with 55.


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