BY John Hickey 05:31PM 01/29/2012

Dinner with Jack Z closed the deal for Iwakuma

On his second day in Seattle, Japanese pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma, expected to compete for the No. 3 starter’s job, says is injured shoulder is fine.

New pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma showed up for Mariners FanFest Sunday. / John Hickey, Sportspress Northwest

Hisashi Iwakuma had plenty of options.

Why Seattle? The 11-year veteran of the Japanese major leagues had a number of big league suitors this winter. He chose to wear a Mariners uniform a year after he couldn’t work out a deal with the Oakland Athletics.

Credit Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik and the dinner he had with Iwakuma in December.

“The moment I knew I wanted to play here came at dinner with the general manager,’’ Iwakuma said Sunday at Safeco Field when he was introduced to media and fans who showed up for the second day of the club’s annual FanFest.

“It felt right and I felt that I was wanted as a starter. That feeling came from Jack.’’

Nothing since has altered that view.

“Yesterday I arrived at the airport,’’ Iwakuma said,  “and it felt right. The first time I visited Seattle, it felt good. I like the club. I like the city. It feels to me like Sendai.’’

Sendai, a coastal city with a population of more than one million that was struck hard by the earthquake/tsunami March 11, 2001, is home to the Rakuten Golden Eagles, Iwakuma’s team from 2005-2011, going 65-48. That included a 6-7 record and 2.42 ERA in an injury-troubled 2011 season. His first four years were spent with Kintetsu, for which he was 42-21.

In his local debut Sunday, Iwakuma did most of his talking in Japanese, with the club’s resident Japanese expert Antony Suzuki doing the interpreting.

But he introduced himself in English.

“I’m Hisashi Iwakuma of the Seattle Mariners,’’ he said.  “I’m here to help the team.’’

Apparently the media lessons dished out by the Kevin Costner character in “Bull Durham” have made it across the Pacific.

Iwakuma made it clear he is looking forward to learning English. He will have the option to speak in Japanese, however, because right fielder Ichiro and utility infielder Munenori Kawasaki will be on the roster.

Iwakuma had dinner recently in Japan with Ichiro, a player he has known since the two were on Team Japan in the 2009 World Baseball Classic, a trophy taken home by the Japanese.

Iwakuma got a call from Boston starter Daisuke Matsuzaka, another veteran of the Japan-to-Major League Baseball transition, who said he was ready to help ease Iwakuma’s move.

“He told me that if I had any questions about pitching here at all to give him a call,’’ Iwakuma said.

The American game differs in that starters go every fifth day. In Japan, it’s six days.

Iwakuma said two of his early priorities will be to establish communication with Seattle pitching coach Carl Willis and with trainer Rick Griffin.

“My goal here is to throw seven innings and 100 pitches every time out,’’ Iwakuma said. “I’d like to take advantage of my 11 years of experience and put my knowledge and pitching (and use it) to the best of my ability.

“What’s important is to be able to communicate with the pitching coach.’’

What of the shoulder issues that limited him to 17 starts last year? Iwakuma said he is healthy.

“I know my body very well,’’ he said. “I’m going to need to be able to communicate with the trainer; it’s going to be real important so that he knows, too.’’

It shouldn’t be an issue for Griffin. Over the years the Mariners have had a number of Japanese pitchers, including Mac Suzuki, Kazuhiro Sasaki and Shigetoshi Hasegawa. Suzuki made nine starts in 1998-99, but the rest of his 20 appearances came as a reliever, and Sasaki and Hasegawa were strictly relievers.

Iwakuma, who signed a one-year contract with Seattle for $1.5 million with bonuses that could triple his income, figures to be the club’s No. 3 starter behind Felix Hernandez and Jason Vargas.

“Today is the first day I have met any of my (new) teammates,’’ Iwakuma said. Vargas and Seattle closer Brandon League were among the Mariners in attendance Sunday. “I’m looking forward to pitching here.’’

Iwakuma, his wife and their two children will spend the next few days looking for a place to live in the area. After that, they’ll head to Arizona and nail down housing for spring training, which starts Feb. 11.

“I’m concerned about putting up good numbers,” he said.  “I’ve got a strong feeling this will be good.’’


  • Bayviewherb

    Perhaps the team is clearing salary for the opportunity to get Payton Manning. I also heard that they wpould try to swing a deal in which they sign Manning and trade for his star receiver.