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May 8, 2014 at 10:59 PM

Mariners 1, Royals 0 — Hisashi Iwakuma masterful in first home start

The Mariners cheer starting pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma when he comes out of the game after having just retired the top of the 8th inning. In just his 2nd start of the season, Iwakuma scattered four hits over 8 innings, with no runs scored, and lowering his ERA to 2.45. (Dean Rutz/The Seattle Times)

The Mariners cheer starting pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma when he comes out of the game after having just retired the top of the 8th inning. In just his 2nd start of the season, Iwakuma scattered four hits over 8 innings, with no runs scored, and lowering his ERA to 2.45. (Dean Rutz/The Seattle Times)

Hisashi Iwakuma wasn’t able to complete a brilliant start in his return to Safeco Field.

His return to form, though, gives the Mariners’ rotation more of a complete — and much more dangerous — look as they inch their way toward the top of the AL West.

Iwakuma threw eight shutout innings in his first home start of the year, allowing just four singles and striking out seven, and Corey Hart delivered a two-out single to drive in the Mariners’ only run in a 1-0 victory over the Kansas City Royals on a chilly Thursday night before 12,577 at Safeco.

It was the first shutout of the season for the Mariners (18-16), who have won six of seven and 11 of 14.

Iwakuma (2-0) had missed all of April while recovering from a strained finger tendon in his throwing hand. He allowed allowed four runs in 6-2/3 innings in his first start of the season last Saturday at Houston.

He was dominant against the Royals, throwing 93 pitches without a walk, and no Kansas City runner advanced past first base.

“Today was very close to 100 percent,” the Japanese right-hander said through an interpreter. “As the game got deeper, I was able to command all my pitches, and all my pitches were working really well today.”

Iwakuma told manager Lloyd McClendon that he was done after eight innings, giving way to closer Fernando Rodney for another dramatic ninth inning. But after walking two batters, Rodney struck out Billy Butler swinging and got Salvador Perez to ground into a fielder’s choice to end it for his 10th save.

Dating to last September, the Mariners have shut out the Royals in three consecutive games. And Iwakuma has a streak of 48-2/3 scoreless innings against the AL Central. (Orel Hershiser, with 55 innings against the NL West in 1998, is the only pitcher dating back to 1974 with a longer scoreless streak against one division.)

Iwakuma, who finished third in the AL Cy Young voting last year, was back in his 2013 form Thursday night, giving what McClendon said is a legitimate No. 1 and No. 2 starters, along with ace Felix Hernandez, atop a rotation that has absorbed several injury hits this year.

“When you have a legit No. 1 … and a legit No. 2, it gives you a sense of who you are,” McClendon said. “It certainly slides everyone else (in the rotation) back down to where they need to be. It’s like an electric warming blanket — you feel good when it’s on. And I feel good when they’re out there.”

There’s a lot to feel good about with these Mariners lately. They returned home from a nine-game trip to New York, Houston and Oakland with a 7-2 record in that stretch, and Thursday’s win brought them within 1.5 games of the idle A’s in the AL West.

“Our guys are grinders,” McClendon said. “I think they’ve proved that they know how to get back up off the ground, so to speak. This has been a tough month and a half in a lot of different ways, and I think when it’s all said and done, maybe we’re not as bad as people thought we were.”

The Seattle offense didn’t generate much against Royals left-hander Danny Duffy, managing just two hits all night. Duffy allowed one run in six-plus innings, with four strikeouts and three walks.

“He threw well,” Hart said, “but our guy threw better.”

The Mariners got their only hits and scored their only run in the third inning.

Mike Zunino hit Duffy’s first pitch of the inning, a 92 mph fastball, off the wall in left-center for a stand-up double. Michael Saunders followed with a sacrificed bunt to move Zunino to third. After Stefen Romero struck out, the Royals intentionally walked Robinson Cano — in a lefty-lefty match up — to bring up the Mariners’ cleanup hitter, right-handed hitter Corey Hart.

Hart then came through with a sharp, two-out single to score Zunino, giving the Mariners the only run they would need. Hart said he was surprised Royals manager Ned Yost — Hart’s former manager in Milwaukee — had elected to walk Cano in that situation.

Standing at first base, Hart pointed toward the Royals’ dugout in celebration.

“I liked the RBI,” Hart said, smiling, “but I liked doing against old managers (more).”

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