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KC@SEA: Smoak's two-run shot gives Mariners late lead

SEATTLE -- Before Thursday's tilt with Kansas City, Justin Smoak talked about how he was working to get his rhythm and timing back at the plate.

Based on his sixth-inning, two-run shot to right field, it seems as though he's well on his way.

Smoak's first home run in 48 games and a solid start from Seattle lefty Jason Vargas was enough for the Mariners in a 4-1 win over the Royals in front of 14,377 at Safeco Field.

Jamey Wright and Tom Wilhelmsen kept the Royals scoreless in the seventh and eighth, respectively, while closer Brandon League put runners on the corners but managed to pick up his 34th save in the ninth.

The other Seattle home run -- Ichiro Suzuki opened the game with his 36th career leadoff homer -- might not have happened had it not been for some simple advice from manager Eric Wedge in the dugout prior to Smoak's decisive at-bat.

"I was wiggling the bat a lot and he just said to quiet my hands," Smoak said. "What do you know, I hit a homer."

Smoak's first home run since June 12 secured the win for Vargas, who had his fastball on point against the Royals.

"His fastball was a lot heavier tonight," said catcher Chris Gimenez, who started for the first time since late June. "There's a difference between a soft 90-mph fastball and a hard 90 mph. He definitely had a little extra on it."

Similar to Smoak, Vargas was in the midst of a post-All-Star break slump. The lefty had gone 1-8 in his last 11 starts and not won since Aug. 10, giving up a combined 21 runs in four losses since.

But the 28-year-old was steady on Thursday. His only mishap in an otherwise impressive outing came in the sixth, when Eric Hosmer lined an RBI single up the middle. That was all the Royals could manage off Vargas, who gave up four hits in six innings and improved to 8-13.

"He was as good as we've seen him in awhile," Wedge said. "He was aggressive and he had a real good fastball. I thought he utilized his breaking ball more because he was so good with his fastball. But the story was the way he used his fastball."

Besides allowing the first-inning home run to Ichiro, Royals starter Luke Hochevar had been cruising up until the Smoak long ball, at one point striking out four Mariners in a row. But after Hochevar walked Dustin Ackley to lead off the sixth, Smoak came up two batters later and crushed a 1-1 fastball to right field.

"The only pitch that I was upset with was the fastball up to Smoak," Hochevar said. "I was trying to go in with that pitch and I missed by a foot. It just ran back over and he caught it."

Smoak played just three games in August because of two separate injuries and had been struggling mightily in July, hitting just .141.

But after a rehab stint with Triple-A Tacoma and a 7-for-24 effort on the past road trip in Oakland and Anaheim, Smoak seems to be getting back to where he was earlier this season, when he hit eight homers in April and May combined and was hitting around the .300 mark.

"It was nice to see him hit one out of the ballpark and nice to see it in a situation where it impacted the ballgame," Wedge said. "He's had a tough road here in the past couple months with injuries and what-not. He's one of the guys that we're looking to finish strong for himself, as well as for us."

Hochevar, who was coming off an eight-inning, three-hit performance at Cleveland, went 6 2/3 innings, striking out nine and allowing three earned runs on six hits. He fell to 10-11.

The Mariners got on the board early when Ichiro lifted the first pitch he saw from Hochevar into the right-field seats to give the Mariners a 1-0 lead. Ichiro's homer marked his fourth leadoff home run this season and moved him into sixth place on the all-time leadoff home run list.

"The first-pitch curveball to Ichiro, I don't even know what to say about that one," Hochevar said. "The [first pitch] of the game -- it was a good pitch and he hit it eight rows deep. I've never seen it, I've never had it happen. I normally don't throw first-pitch curveballs in a game, but what do you do?"

Ichiro finished 2-for-3 and needs 37 hits over the last 19 games to reach 200 for the 11th straight season. He also reached 5,001 total bases in his career (U.S. and Japan) on Thursday, making him the 20th player with at least 5,000 total bases in a professional career.

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