SEATTLE — Hisashi Iwakuma insists he did more than gather splinters while working long relief for the Mariners the first half of the season.
In fact, the Japanese veteran, who turned 31 in April, says those initial months helped him adjust to a very different life in the major leagues, both on and off the field. Iwakuma now feels he’s back to pitching the way he once did in Japan and—with a new agent—wants to stay in Seattle on a deal that extends beyond the 2013 season.
Which means the Mariners will have some thinking to do this winter as they weigh how much of a risk to take, going off the half-season of starts Iwakuma has made.
“For me, my family comes first and this is the best place to be for my family and me,” Iwakuma said, through interpreter Daisuke Sekiba, a friend he brought with him from Japan when he signed a $1.5 million, incentive-laden deal last winter. “I love this team and I hope I can play here the next few years.”
Iwakuma says his wife, Madoka, and children, Towa and Uta, have adjusted nicely to life in the Seattle area.
But it wasn’t always clear things would work out so well. In spring training, with Iwakuma coming off shoulder problems from 2011, the Mariners pulled him from the rotation when he couldn’t routinely get major league hitters out.
Iwakuma says it was the right call. And that he’s become a much better pitcher.
“I spent the first half getting used to the environment of everything,” he said. “I learned to understand the hitters. I got used to the mound, the ball, touching the field. The pitch selection between me and the catchers. Just the positioning of their mitts, everything is kind of different.
“So, I spent the first half learning what the major leagues are. Then, I made adjustments for it, so that in the second half I could do better.”
Iwakuma doesn’t want to guess at how he’d have done had he begun the season in the rotation. He does, however, say it took him months to find the proper tempo that he now employs when he starts a game.
Mariners manager Eric Wedge said Iwakuma’s velocity was down in spring training due to the previous shoulder woes. But the biggest thing, Wedge added, was that Iwakuma’s pitches were simply too hittable.
“The velocity’s played a lot better for him and the late-action on his pitches has been better,” Wedge said. “Just the life on his fastball and the end of his pitches, which is everything. The life in the zone is what separates you up here.”
Wedge was reluctant to use Iwakuma early because of the time it would take him to ready himself on the mound. In only his second Mariners appearance in April at Toronto, Iwakuma entered, gave up two hits and a walk, then a grand slam before settling down and retiring the side on two strikeouts and a ground out.
Afterward, at times, he’d take longer than expected to recover from his infrequent outings.
“From what we’ve seen here, he’s done a good job with the adjustments he needed to make,” Wedge said. “Major league hitters, they always show you the way. They’ll let you know what you need to do, or let you know what you’re not doing.
“I think he’s done a good job making those adjustments.”
Wedge and general manager Jack Zduriencik won’t discuss upcoming contracts for players. But Zduriencik went through the trouble of keeping Iwakuma on the roster, knowing he might eventually glimpse the pitcher who captured the equivalent of the Japanese Cy Young Award in 2008.
To date, he is clearly pleased with Iwakuma’s second-half results. Iwakuma is 5-3 with a 2.80 earned-run average in a dozen starts, has a strikeouts-to-walks ratio of 2.3 and is holding opponents to a .234 batting average.
Iwakuma had gone four straight outings without allowing a home run after being torched for long balls his previous 10 games. Then, he got tagged for a three-run blast on Saturday in a loss to Oakland, his first defeat since early August.
Home runs have certainly impacted Iwakuma’s numbers this season and they will be something for the Mariners to consider as they decide how far to go with a pitcher who will turn 32 early next season.
Another off-field adjustment Iwakuma had to make was gaining closure on the long-standing illness of his father, Tokuji, back in Japan. Iwakuma flew home between starts in late-July to essentially say goodbye to his father—who had become too ill to speak by phone—knowing he might not survive the rest of the season.
Iwakuma returned to Seattle the day before a July 30 start against Toronto, then went out the next night and fanned a career-high 13 batters.
“I was hoping that my pitching could inspire him,” Iwakuma said. “I was hoping he could be happy knowing that I was pitching over here and doing well. That it would give him strength.”
The kind of inner strength Iwakuma has summoned to transform a season that once seemed lost.