SEATTLE -- Just as Franklin Gutierrez stepped into the batter's box in the eighth inning on Thursday night, right-hander Felix Hernandez, sitting in the first-base dugout, covered his head with a towel. It didn't come off until the roar of the crowd told Felix something special was happening. The ace looked up just in time to watch the ball Gutierrez hit off Rangers reliever C.J. Wilson clear the wall in left-center field for a two-out three-run homer, a blast that catapulted the Mariners to a 3-1 win before 24,823 at Safeco Field.
"This was a great victory," Gutierrez said. "We have had some tough losses the last two games." Closer David Aardsma, who squandered a three-run lead in the ninth against the Orioles on Wednesday afternoon in a 5-3 loss, rebounded in a big way on Thursday. He worked a perfect ninth inning for his 17th save as the Mariners moved to within 3 1/2 games of the first-place Rangers. "We put him right back on the horse, and he gave us a 1-2-3 inning," manager Don Wakamatsu said. "It was great for him, mentally, and great for the team. It shows that he's for real." But until the bottom of the eighth inning, the Mariners were headed for their seventh straight loss to the Rangers this season. The run that the visitors scored in the sixth inning off Hernandez was still standing, and the Mariners were down to their final four outs when Gutierrez came to the rescue. Ichiro Suzuki greeted Wilson with a double to left but remained at second when the next two batters made outs. Ken Griffey Jr. capped an excellent at-bat with a walk, setting the stage for Gutierrez. "He just fouled a bunch of pitches off," Wilson said of the Griffey at-bat. "I threw him about eight or nine strikes, and he just fouled them off. He didn't chase anything. "I thought I had him on the last pitch, but it just was a little bit outside. I thought maybe he was going to swing at it. I threw the ball where I wanted to throw it, within a couple of inches, it just wasn't right where I wanted to throw it." The first pitch to Gutierrez was a ball, and the second one was the ballgame. "I wasn't sure if it was out, but I felt like I hit it good," Gutierrez said. "You never know when you hit it to center field here. He throws pretty hard, and I was ready for it. When I hit first and saw it go out, I was pretty excited." He received a team-full of high-fives and hugs when he reached the dugout, and was coaxed out for a curtain call. "That was the first curtain call I've had," he said. "It was exciting. Felix kind of pushed me out there. I appreciate the fan support, and it was an exciting moment." Hernandez might have been the most excited person in the dugout, giving his teammate a prolonged bear hug. "I told him, 'Thank you, thank you,'" Felix said. Gutierrez has been one of the Mariners' hottest hitters, getting at least one hit in 20 of his past 22 games, going 23-for-48 to raise his batting average from .251 to .297. Seven of the hits have been home runs. "It was supposed to be down and away, it just kind of cut back in a little bit," Wilson said. "It was a sinker, and it just kind of cut a little bit. It just wasn't in the right spot. He hit it pretty well, obviously. There's always a little bit of hope when the guy hits the ball in the air here that it's not going to travel, but he got everything on it." And Hernandez got his ninth win of the season on it. Selected to his first All-Star team, Hernandez leads the Mariners' starting pitchers in virtually every category. He has the most wins, the most innings pitched, the most strikeouts -- and the most wild pitches. His 12th of the season came in the sixth inning cost him the only run he allowed. After retiring the first two batters in the sixth, Hernandez walked Ian Kinsler and surrendered a single to Michael Young. The runners pulled off a double steal and, on a full-count pitch to Josh Hamilton, Felix uncorked a pitch that caromed away from catcher Rob Johnson. Hernandez, making his first start since being named to the American League All-Star team, looked every bit like one of the top pitchers in the league while holding the Rangers to two hits and no runs over five innings. "He was absolutely electric," Wakamatsu said. "He showed why he's an All-Star. His sinker was absolutely unhittable at times, and you saw his reaction after the home run. His passion is going to make him special in the game for a long time. It's a beautiful thing to watch in the dugout." But Felix's pitching counterpart, Tommy Hunter, was just about as good, handcuffing the Mariners on four hits and no runs over six innings. He pitched around a leadoff single to Ichiro in the first inning, a two-on, no-out predicament in the second and stranded two runners in the fifth to match zeroes with Hernandez. Ichiro had three hits to lead a Seattle offense that finished with six hits. He now has 38 multihit games, which leads the Major Leagues.
Jim Street is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.