SEATTLE — Not since he was shutting down opponents for his hometown Rakuten Eagles in Japan five years ago has Hisashi Iwakuma been on a roll like this.
Those fifth-place Eagles taught Iwakuma all about pitching well for a bad team, lessons his struggling Mariners are no doubt grateful for. Iwakuma did not allow an earned run for a third straight start in Monday night’s sloppily-played 3-2 victory over a bumbling Houston Astros team.
But the Mariners will take wins any way they can these days, especially when Iwakuma shuts things down over seven innings the way he did in this one.
“Usually, when I have a good start (to the season), I have a good year,’’ Iwakuma said, through interpreter Antony Suzuki. “So, that’s a good sign.’’
Iwakuma is off to a rousing start, improving to 7-1 with a 1.79 earned-run average. He hasn’t allowed an earned run in 28 ²∕³ innings, dating to May 26 against the Texas Rangers.
In fact, he hadn’t allowed a run of any kind for 23 ²∕³ innings until shortstop Brendan Ryan dropped a throw at second on a potential double-play ball in the third. That left runners at the corners with one out, and Jose Altuve drove the run home moments later on a sacrifice fly.
But Raul Ibanez got that back with a solo homer in the fourth off Houston starter Dallas Keuchel, and then the Astros reverted to typical form in the innings that followed and gave away two runs. One scored on a wild throw to first base in the fifth. In the seventh, Altuve dropped a throw to second on what could have been an inning-ending double-play grounder by Kendrys Morales. Instead, the inning kept going and Michael Morse drilled a double to left-center to help salt this one away in front of 12,811 fans at Safeco Field.
Up 3-1 in the ninth, Mariners closer Tom Wilhelmsen gave up an infield single and later, a two-out bloop hit to left by Carlos Corporan that scored the second Houston run. But Wilhelmsen closed things out soon after.
Iwakuma went 21-4 for the Eagles that 2008 season, taking home league MVP honors and the Cy Young Award equivalent as he got nearly a third of his team’s 65 victories. He’s notched a quarter of the fourth-place Mariners’ 28 wins and is demonstrating all the composure of a staff ace.
The Astros looked about to tie a 2-1 game in the seventh inning by putting runners at first and second with nobody out. But Jimmy Paredes failed to get a bunt down and Iwakuma soon made him his eighth strikeout victim.
Then, after lead runner Carlos Pena took third on a ball in the dirt, Iwakuma threw a sinker to Matt Dominguez on his 105th and final pitch and saw him ground it to second baseman Carlos Triunfel to begin a 4-6-3 double play.
“Like always, I tried to slow the game down,’’ Iwakuma said. “I was pitching with composure and imagining that I would get a double-play in that situation.’’
Iwakuma is 3-0 with an 0.92 ERA at Safeco Field with 46 strikeouts and only three walks allowed.
“This is our home field, I feel very comfortable here and I’m very used to the mound here too,’’ Iwakuma said. “So, that helps me a lot, to have that advantage.’’
The Mariners again managed few timely hits. But Triunfel helped position the Mariners to score the go-ahead run after being caught in a rundown between second and third in the fifth on a Kyle Seager grounder.
Triunfel kept darting back and forth, buying time for Seager to make it all the way to second on the play. Seager scored when third baseman Dominguez threw a ball away at first base on a Morales infield hit.
Mariners manager Eric Wedge will take any runs his depleted offense can muster these days, though he remains concerned by the lack of production.
“That’s where we’ve got to do better,’’ he said.
Fortunately for the Mariners, Iwakuma’s pitching made extra runs unnecessary.
“He’s been about as consistent as any pitcher in baseball for quite a while now,’’ Wedge said.