DETROIT – About a month ago, Hisashi Iwakuma took over as Mariners staff ace and never looked back.
At a time of year when pitchers everywhere are wearing down from fatigue and injury, including Mariners starter Felix Hernandez, Iwakuma seems to be getting stronger. The second-year Japanese league veteran beat the venerable Detroit Tigers, 8-0, on Wednesday night in arguably his finest outing of the season.
His eight scoreless innings of four-hit ball helped the Mariners keep the lead in a close game they didn’t break open until the final two innings. Iwakuma has now logged 25 consecutive scoreless innings on the road and convinced the Mariners he can make one last start after they’d initially discussed shutting him down early.
“We have a few more games to play, so just having that opportunity is always a good thing for me — going out there and competing,” Iwakuma said, through interpreter Antony Suzuki.
Iwakuma improved to 13-6 and lowered his earned-run average from 2.87 to 2.76 while his innings total climbed to 2112 / 3. That’s the second-most in the American League, just two innings behind leader James Shields of the Kansas City Royals.
The Mariners got solo home runs from Justin Smoak and Franklin Gutierrez and two more doubles by Michael Saunders to beat Tigers starter Justin Verlander for the eighth time in his career. That’s the most losses handed Verlander by a team outside the AL Central division.
A crowd of 36,395 at Comerica Park saw Iwakuma work out of a bases-loaded jam in the first inning by striking out onetime Mariners infielder Matt Tuiasosopo. The Mariners then took the lead in the second when Smoak walked and scored all the way from first base on a Saunders double to left center.
Nick Franklin then singled to score Saunders and give the Mariners a 2-0 lead Iwakuma wouldn’t relinquish. Smoak took Verlander deep to left in the sixth for a huge insurance run and the Mariners later scored four more runs off Detroit’s bullpen in the eighth.
The highlight was Smoak and Saunders scoring from third and second base, respectively, on the same wild pitch by reliever Al Albuquerque. Tigers catcher Alex Avila tried to throw Smoak out at the plate after retrieving the ball, only to have it missed by a covering Albuquerque – enabling Saunders to score all the way from second.
Smoak’s teammates gave him a hard time afterward about his baserunning. He appeared to be carrying an invisible piano on his back on the second-inning double by Saunders as he lumbered around the bases – sore quad and all – and barely made it home in time.
“For some reason, I just knew it, I had to go,” Smoak said of being waved all the way around. “It was just, take it nice and easy and hopefully get in there.”
Saunders has three doubles and a triple his past two games after tweaking his swing so his hands start out further back and higher up. The adjustment minimizes the movement in his swing and helps him get to the ball quicker.
After fouling off too many hittable pitches this year, Saunders decided to make the adjustment based on how he felt in the box.
“It’s something that I wasn’t doing last year,’’ he said of being late on so many swings. “I feel like I made a stride forward last year and I feel like I basically made a stride backwards this year.
“It’s still very brief. But I’ve noticed a difference with this adjustment and am looking forward to continuing to get out there and keep working on it.”
The hitting by Saunders and Smoak gave Iwakuma the breathing room he needed. Iwakuma struck out six, with reigning AL MVP Miguel Cabrera victimized twice.
“You don’t see Miggy swing the way he swung tonight against a pitcher very often,” Mariners manager Eric Wedge said of Cabrera’s strikeouts. “I thought Kuma did a great job against the middle of their order. I thought he did a nice job of controlling the baseball game. When he was ahead, he finished off hitters, and when he was behind, he came back and he got back in the count.”
Wedge had talked pregame about how Iwakuma’s offseason strength-training regimen and the coaching staff’s inseason handling of his workload were now paying dividends.
Iwakuma had gone a month since his last win, despite limiting opponents to just three earned runs his last 25 2 / 3 innings in four starts combined. But with his best run support since July 25, he kept his pitch count at an efficient 105 and lasted eight frames for the first time since late June.
Besides the first-inning escape, he got out of a second bases-loaded jam in the fourth when Hernan Perez grounded into a double play.
“I was just being aggressive and staying down in the zone,’’ Iwakuma said of that at-bat. “Just being patient and not rushing, knowing what the situation was and just going after the hitter.”
And now, his season-long patience at pacing himself through early blister problems, midseason fatigue and team-imposed pitch-count limits is helping Iwakuma finish stronger than any starting pitcher the Mariners have.