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Hunter eludes trouble as Rangers roll

Hunter eludes trouble as Rangers roll

SEATTLE -- Tommy Hunter put runners on base in every inning. He just refused to let them score.

But that's been a strength of Rangers pitchers all season and why they compose one of the top pitching staffs in the American League. Only one team is better in bearing down with runners in scoring position.

On Thursday night, Hunter and reliever Matt Harrison held the Mariners to 0-for-12 with runners in scoring position while helping the Rangers to a 6-0 victory at Safeco Field. Hunter held them to 0-for-10 in those situations and Harrison got two big outs with two on base in the seventh inning.

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Relievers Darren O'Day and Neftali Feliz then retired six straight over the final two innings to give the Rangers their fifth shutout of the season. It came on a night when Hunter had to go against Mariners ace Felix Hernandez and the two were locked in a scoreless duel through six innings.

"Tommy was great," Rangers third baseman Michael Young said. "That was a nice rebound game for him and we needed it. Felix was at the top of his game and Tommy matched him pitch for pitch."

The Rangers finally broke through in the seventh, when Vladimir Guerrero led off with a single and, after Nelson Cruz flied out to deep center, David Murphy launched one to left that barely cleared the wall and eluded the glove of left fielder Michael Saunders. At first, the Rangers thought Saunders had caught the ball and Guerrero stood at second base waiting for a signal.

"I think it was close," Saunders said. "I was playing him shallow not expecting him to go the other way and got twisted around. I ran back to where I thought the ball was going to be. I didn't take into account the way the ball was slicing and got turned around. As I was going up for it, I lost track of where I was on the warning track and hit the ball instead."

The Rangers kept pouring it on with another run in that inning and three more in the eighth. They ended up taking two of three from the Mariners and now lead the Oakland Athletics by 8 1/2 games in the AL West going into a three-game series that starts on Friday at the Oakland Coliseum. The Angels, after losing their third straight to the Orioles, are 10 games back.

The Rangers also handed Hernandez his fourth loss in five starts since the All-Star break, even though he has a 3.19 ERA during that stretch. He is also 0-3 with a 6.38 ERA in four starts against the Rangers this year.

"His stuff is amazing," Murphy said. "He threw some curveballs that were as good as any pitcher I've seen. He's got Cy Young type of stuff. To have that ERA and that record, he's obviously fallen on some hard times and they're not scoring enough runs for him. But we respect him. He always pitches well against us and we have to bring our A game against him."

Hunter ended up going 6 1/3 innings, allowing eight hits and two walks while striking out five. He was coming off his only loss and worst outing of the season on Friday in Anaheim, where he allowed eight runs in three innings. But his work on Thursday night left him 9-1 with a 3.01 ERA on the season.

"I threw the ball a lot better," Hunter said. "I was able to command the ball on both sides of the plate. The last time I was missing over the plate. Tonight, I was able to throw my offspeed pitches for strikes."

But his best work was done with runners in scoring position. The 0-for-10 by the Mariners on Thursday left his opponents hitting .140 in those situations this season. They are hitting .244 overall.

"I don't want it to be like that," Hunter said. "They got some hits early in the inning. I don't know what to tell you about that one. I wish it was different."

Why? It's working. Rangers pitchers have held opponents to a .236 batting average with runners in scoring position, second lowest in the league. Opponents are hitting .244 off them overall.

"They seem to want to start wanting to make pitches when they get men on the bags rather than earlier, when they should," manager Ron Washington said. "But you have to find out what you're made of when you do what you have to do to get it done."

Said catcher Bengie Molina, "Tommy got in a couple of jams and made great pitches. That's what I tell pitchers, just keep getting outs. You never know how the game is going to turn out, so don't give away any runs."

Hunter had a 3-0 lead going into the bottom of the seventh, then walked Jack Wilson to lead off the inning and gave up a one-out single to Chone Figgins. With two left-handed hitters coming up -- Casey Kotchman and Russell Branyan -- Washington called on Harrison.

Darren Oliver normally pitches in those spots but he went 21/3 innings the night before. So Washington called on his second left-hander and Harrison got Kotchman on a popup and Branyan on a grounder to short to end the threat.

"We had plenty of opportunities," Mariners manager Don Wakamatsu lamented. "We were 0-for-12 with runners in scoring position. The top of the order is doing their job. ... But we have to be able to drive in runs and didn't do it again tonight."

Rangers pitchers have been good at preventing that.

T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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