When Hisashi Iwakuma returned to the rotation Saturday after missing nearly three months of baseball, including spring training, the Mariners understood they were getting a major boost. Yet no one knew just how long it would take him to return to his dominant form of 2013.
After eight scoreless innings in a 1-0 win over Kansas City Thursday night at Safeco Field, it’s safe to say he’s back.
“It was pretty darned good,” Seattle manager Lloyd McClendon said of Iwakuma’s effort, which gave the Mariners their first shutout. ”I think he gave us everything he had tonight and probably a little bit more.
“He’s getting better each and every time out, but I think if you asked him, he’d say there’s a lot more in there, a lot more room for improvement. That just goes to show you how good he really is.”
Iwakuma allowed four singles, walked none and struck out seven in his second start since being activated off the disabled list with a strain to his middle finger. He entered the contest with a sterling 40.2 scoreless inning streak against AL Central foes from May 20 of last season. That streak was extended to 48.2 innings, which leaves him behind just Orel Hershisher, who had a run of 55 scoreless innings against the NL West in 1988.
Iwakuma was pulled by McClendon after he retired the side in the eighth inning on his 93rd pitch. McClendon said Iwakuma told him, “I’m about done,” when he entered the dugout.
Closer Fernando Rodney was summoned for the ninth. It wasn’t nearly as smooth as the 12,577 in attendance hoped it would be.
Rodney walked the first hitter, then Royals’ outfielder Nori Aoki sacrificed the runner to second. Eric Hosmer, who had just about the only successful night off of Iwakuma with two singles, walked to put runners on first and second. But after a conference on the mound, Rodney settled down and struck out Billy Butler and got Salvador Perez to ground into a fielder’s choice.
The Mariners’ lone run in the third inning when they cashed in Mike Zunino’s leadoff double with a two-out RBI single to center by Corey Hart. Hart’s hit came one batter after the Royals walked intentionally Robinson Cano.
Hart, hitting .217, feels good at the plate but said he hasn’t been getting much to show for it. He went 1-for-3 with the biggest hit of the game.
“I’ll take any hit I can get right now, but the offense didn’t win the game,” Hart said referring to Iwakuma’s outstanding effort. “I can go to sleep easier, just not too far away from a good average and a lot of hits.”
The knocks by Zunino and Hart were the only hits of the game for Seattle, which was held in check by Royals’ starter Danny Duffy, also making his second start of the season.
“He’s got a great arm, he’s got a big arm,” McClendon said about Duffy, a pitcher he is familiar with from his days with the Detroit coaching staff. “It seems like he’s starting to harness it. It was an impressive outing.”
The left-handed Duffy (1-3, 1.96) used a mid-90′s fastball and a heavy breaking ball to keep hitters off balance. He entered as one of the stingier home run pitchers in the AL, carrying a 53.1inning homerless streak back to 2012.
The Mariners had good wood on several off his offerings, only to hit into eight fly-ball outs, each seemingly right at the Royals’ defenders. Duffy pitched six-plus innings, walking thre an hitting one. He struck out three.
“We hadn’t seen a lot of him and I guess you don’t see a whole lot of lefties throwing that hard,” said Hart. “It was frustrating on the hitting side because we kept putting some good at bats together with not a lot to show for it. But when your starter throws the way (Iwakuma) did, you don’t have to do a whole lot.”
Iwakuma said through an interpreter: “Today was very close to 100 percent. As the game got deeper, I was able to command all of my pitches. All of my pitches were working pretty well today,”
Iwakuma’s outing moved Seattle (18-16) 1.5 games behind the Oakland Athletics in the AL West race. A race the team is in the thick of despite missing projected starters James Paxton and Taijuan Walker, and not having Felix Hernandez at peak form.
“When you have a legit number one and a legit number two, it gives you a sense of who you are and it certainly slides everybody else down where they need to be. It’s like an electric warming blanket,” McClendon said. “It feels good when it’s on and I feel good when they are out there.
“Our guys are grinders. I think they are proving they know how to get back up off the mat . . . Maybe when it’s all said and done, we’re not as bad as people thought we were going to be.”
Recovering starting pitchers Walker (shoulder) and Paxton (lat strain) have been playing catch for the past 10-12 days, usually separately. The two did so again Thursday, tossing from 120 feet and then from 60 feet on flat ground. Paxton will throw a 20-25 pitch bullpen Friday of mostly fastballs with a few changeups. Walker will throw a 25-30 pitch bullpen on Sunday in the same manner. “Everything is feeling great and no pain back there,” Paxton said. . . . The same cannot be said for 1B/OF Logan Morrison, who remains sidelined on the 15-day disabled list with a tight hamstring. His progress has been much slower than anticipated. “He’s not running well right now,” McClendon said.