SEATTLE -- Kason Gabbard hasn't given up a run in his last two starts, yet he hasn't been able to get through four innings in either of those games.

A bad back forced him out of the first one. Richie Sexson's hair-trigger reaction to a pitch was the cause of Gabbard's latest misfortune.

Sexson, taking exception to a fastball that was in the general vicinity of his head, charged the mound in the fourth inning and set off an altercation that ultimately forced Gabbard out of the game in the Rangers' 5-0 victory over the Mariners at Safeco Field on Thursday night.

Gabbard was hit by Sexson in the back by a thrown helmet. Then he clashed with the Seattle first baseman before being buried under a pile of players. When the skirmish was over, Sexson was ejected, while Gabbard was allowed to continue. But he was able to pitch to just two batters before coming out of the game with what the Rangers described as general soreness.

Most of the soreness was in his legs. Gabbard's bad back, which had put him on the disabled list after a two-inning scoreless outing in Boston on April 21, came through the melee without further damage. But this was his first start since coming off the disabled list, and the Rangers didn't let him hang around long after the incident. He was done after a walk and a single.

"It looked like he was laboring out there, so we weren't going to leave him out there," Rangers manager Ron Washington said.

Gabbard declined to talk after the game, while the rest of the postgame testimony included the usual accusations and denials. The Rangers only know they had two hitters plunked by Mariners starter Felix Hernandez before Sexson came to the plate with two outs in the fourth. The Rangers were up, 4-0, at the time.

Gabbard's first pitch was high, at eye-level, and Sexson, who is 6-foot-8, ducked away from the pitch even though it appeared over the plate, rather than inside.

"If we were trying to hit him, we would have hit him," Washington said. "If you go look at the replays, Gabbard didn't even come close. Sexson was just frustrated, and things got out of control. You look at the replay -- that ball was over the middle of the plate. He overreacted."

Sexson reacted by charging the mound and throwing his helmet at Gabbard just before they grappled. Texas catcher Gerald Laird then tackled Sexson, and other players joined in the fray. Sexson said afterward he was expecting to get hit in retaliation for Hernandez hitting Laird and Ian Kinsler earlier in the game.

"I understood the situation, but there is a right way and a wrong way to play the game," Sexson said. "If you hit me below the shoulders, I am fine with that. I was well aware of the fact he probably was going to hit me. But get up near the face, and that's when you start talking about careers.

"Throw a pitch up around my head, [and] I'm not going to deal with that. It's the wrong way to play baseball. I have played the game a pretty long time. This guy can hit corners at will, and he throws one up there. How hard is it to hit me in the thigh?"

Laird admitted the Rangers were trying to go "hard inside" but not trying to hit Sexson. Camera replays showed Laird giving Gabbard the signal to come inside.

"He thought it was at his head, but that's not me," Laird said. "I don't do that."

The Rangers weren't happy that Sexson threw his helmet as he closed in on Gabbard. That is likely to draw a suspension that could keep Sexson out of part or all of next week's three-game series with the Rangers in Arlington.

"I thought that was bull," Washington said. "How tall is he? Six-foot-13? Running at a little guy and throw a helmet, that's just frustration. The guy, he's a competitor; he's just frustrated."

Said Rangers reliever Eddie Guardado, who pitched for the Mariners in 2004-06: "All those guys are great guys. Maybe Richie was trying to pump his team up; they've been struggling over there. If you're going to charge anybody, throw your hands out there, but don't throw equipment. Somebody is going to get hurt if you throw a helmet or a bat. I'm sure Richie is sorry he threw the helmet. He's a good guy."

Sexson did admit that throwing the helmet was the wrong thing to do.

"It's a rage at that point," Sexson said. "I know throwing a helmet is the wrong thing to do ... but I lost it. You start thinking about a lot of things there. ... The whole time going to the plate, [I was thinking], 'I don't mind getting hit, but keep it down.'"

The altercation broke up with the usual pushing and shoving. Guardado played peacemaker by shoving Hernandez away from the fray.

"I'm too old to be doing that," Guardado said. "It was probably good for both teams. It got the heart pounding and the blood flowing, and you saw some good baseball after that. But you never want to see that. We play those guys a lot, and those things are going to happen. Hopefully nobody got hurt. The next time, I'm going out there in my police uniform and my whistle."

Laird had words with Hernandez and Sexson before being physically carried and pushed back to the dugout by Milton Bradley.

"Milton was just protecting his teammate, trying to keep him from getting thrown out of the ballgame," Washington said. "That's what good teammates do."

The Rangers insisted they weren't throwing at Sexson, but there's no doubt they were upset with Hernandez. Laird got hit on the wrist in the second inning before scoring on Ian Kinsler's two-run home run.

Kinsler then came up in the top of the fourth, and Hernandez hit him on the left arm. Kinsler glared at Hernandez as he flung his bat away. The two growled at each other, but Kinsler went to first without incident.

"It was just the whole situation," Kinsler said. "It wasn't like it was the seventh inning in an 8-2 ballgame and I'm 0-for-3. After you hit a home run, the guy throws a straight ball up and in, and he's a sinkerball pitcher. You like to believe it's a purpose pitch."

After Sexson was ejected and order was restored, the game proceeded without any problems. The Rangers left town afterwards, but the Mariners arrive in Arlington for a three-game series beginning on Monday. Gabbard is scheduled to pitch on Tuesday.

"If they do something, we'll retaliate, but we're not carrying it over," Washington said. "We don't have a vendetta against the Seattle Mariners."