SEATTLE -- Felix Hernandez looked a lot more like the vintage King on Sunday and that is good news indeed for a Mariners club that suddenly finds itself alone in first place in the American League West.
Hernandez threw eight innings of one-run ball, allowing five hits with a walk and seven strikeouts in his best performance since an impressive Opening Day win and his Mariners teammates rallied late to lift surging Seattle to a 2-1 victory and a three-game sweep of the Rays at Safeco Field.
"The way we're playing, I just want to be me, the pitcher I am," Hernandez said. "I'm trying to go out there and compete every five days because we've got a pretty good team with a chance to go to the playoffs."
Former Rays outfielder Denard Span tied the game with a run-scoring single off reliever Jose Alvarado in the eighth and Dee Gordon drove in the eventual winner with a bloop hit to shallow left as the Mariners closed out an 8-2 homestand with their fourth straight win.
The Mariners have won 13 of their last 16 to move into first place in the American League West at 37-22 and head now to Houston for a two-game series with the second-place Astros starting Tuesday.
Blake Snell, a 25-year-old Seattle native making his first professional start at Safeco, fired six scoreless innings with two hits, no walks and 12 strikeouts in an overpowering 100-pitch outing for the Rays, but the Mariners rallied in the eighth off Alvarado.
"That is a Major League baseball game at its finest," Mariners manager Scott Servais said. "What Mr. Snell threw out there at us for six innings was pretty special stuff. He's got a great arm and he's turned into a great pitcher.
"On the flip side, our old guy hung right with him and it was great to see. That's the best Felix has thrown the ball since Opening Day. He came out with an attitude today and had something to prove."
Snell (7-3, 2.36 ERA) tied an AL record by striking out the first seven batters of the game and the Mariners wound up striking out a season-high 16 times.
Hernandez is no stranger to dominating performances in his own career, but the 32-year-old right-hander has struggled much of this season and is now 6-4 despite a 5.33 ERA in 13 starts. Sunday's outing looked much better, however, as an animated Hernandez made his longest start of the year and limited the Rays to an RBI double by former teammate Brad Miller in the fourth.
"I've said from Day 1 since I've been here, Felix is a tremendous competitor," Servais said. "When it's on the line and his back is against the wall, he finds a way. And that's what we saw today. I think he loved the fact their guy was really good. It forced him to elevate his game."
The Mariners' rotation has been excellent in its recent run, with James Paxton, Marco Gonzales, Mike Leake and Wade LeBlanc all pitching well. Hernandez has the highest ERA of that group, but if the former ace can get back to form, it would be another big boost for a Seattle club that hasn't made the playoffs since 2001.
"It means a lot," said Gordon, who went 2-for-4 and had a pair of stolen bases in addition to his game-winning hit. "He was really good today, the best I've seen him in my short time here. So that's pretty cool."
Edwin Diaz closed out the game in the ninth with his MLB-leading 21st save as the Mariners improved to 18-9 in one-run games and notched their 17th comeback victory of the year.
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Hernandez got out of a tough jam in the fifth inning when he loaded the bases with one out. But the veteran dug in and struck out Joey Wendle and then got Matt Duffy on a hard comebacker up the middle, snaring the 101-mph shot himself and flipping to first to end the inning. That led to another happy stomp off the mound for Hernandez, who was fired up from the start.
"That was time to really knuckle down and he made pitches," Servais said. "He got the big strikeout and got out of that inning, which was a little emotional boost for him, too. Stay in the game and I'm going to find a way to help my team win, which was great."
Hernandez's seven strikeouts hiked his career total to 2,404, moving him past Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley into 43rd on the all-time MLB list. Next up is Luis Tiant with 2,416. And then? Former Mariners lefty Jamie Moyer is 41st with 2,441.
HE SAID IT
"It's a little weird lining up against those guys so soon after the trade. But I'm a Seattle Mariner now and this already feels like home. It's always good to compete in a new spot and be able to come through in the clutch." -- Span, on his game-tying hit against the team that traded him to Seattle last week
Paxton opens a two-game series at Houston on Tuesday at 5:10 p.m. PT against Astros lefty Dallas Keuchel (3-7, 3.65) in a battle of the top two teams in the AL West. Paxton is coming off a tremendous May in which he went 3-0 with a 1.67 ERA in six starts, including a no-hitter. The big lefty is 4-3 with a 3.16 ERA in nine starts against Houston, including a 2-1 win against Keuchel in Seattle in April when he allowed one run and three hits in six innings.