By Larry LaRue The News Tribune
CHICAGO — The Seattle Mariners will have played one-third of the 2012 season when their game ends tonight, which puts pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma on pace to appear in 15 games.
All relief appearances.
That’s not what the 31-year-old right-hander or general manager Jack Zduriencik had in mind when they agreed to a one-year, $1.5 million free-agent contract in January.
“I have been a starting pitcher my entire career in Japan,” Iwakuma said through an interpreter. “This is a different role. I have never experienced this in my career.”
Early in spring training, Iwakuma struggled to throw a major league baseball as well as he’d thrown a Japanese baseball — the two balls are much different than you would think, pitching coach Carl Willis said. Iwakuma’s pitches had far less movement than the Mariners had seen when watching him pitch in Japan.
“I don’t think I understood the difficulty until we got to Japan for opening day and I picked up a Japanese baseball,” Willis said. “There was a big difference.”
By then, Iwakuma was essentially the Mariners’ seventh starter on the depth chart, behind the five men who broke spring training in the rotation and rookie right-hander Erasmo Ramirez.
Fifty-three games later, nothing has changed. Iwakuma is in the bullpen as a long reliever, Ramirez in Tacoma starting games. When the Mariners next need a starting pitcher — because of illness or injury — that man almost certainly will be Ramirez.
“My goal is to start. I want to pitch more. I love facing hitters,” Iwakuma said. “I have enjoyed the first third of the season. I believe I will start. Until then, I will do the best I can in the role I have.”
Willis understands Iwakuma’s frustration.
“Everybody wants to play, everyone wants to pitch,” Willis said. “The way he’s accepted the role has not gone unnoticed — by me, (manager) Eric Wedge or his teammates.
“Iwakuma works as hard as anyone to stay ready. I know it seems hard to believe, but at some point this season he’ll probably be overworked.”
That seems hard to believe.
Iwakuma’s five appearances include three innings Wednesday in the Mariners’ 21-8 victory over Texas, which produced his first career save.
It left him with a 6.00 earned-run average and 15 innings pitched.
He literally has gone weeks between appearances.
“I have a routine, but at times I haven’t pitched in 15 days. I try to stay more motivated and ready each day,” Iwakuma said. “Each day, after the game, I start preparing for the next day’s game.
“It has been difficult. I have tried to get used to it.”
Willis and the Mariners have tried to help him keep his pitches sharp.
“Every third day he doesn’t pitch he throws a bullpen session,” Willis said. “I think his stuff is better today than it was in spring training, when he was working with the new baseball.
“His pitches are moving now. It’s not an easy role for anyone, but he’s done his best to accept it.
“It’s the way the game goes. Our starters have been going deep into games. At some point, we’re going to lean on him.
“The first game of the (Texas) series, we talked about using him when Kevin Millwood came out (after) five innings tied. If we’d been behind, we’d have gone to him,” Willis said.
“In the second game, up 10-3 in the ninth, we thought about using him. But he’s never pitched back-to-back, and what if we’d needed him the next day?”
As it turned out, they did need him the next day. Iwakuma worked three innings, allowed three runs.
For now, his role is to wait for a starting pitcher to falter or the team to get deep into extra innings.
Would Iwakuma rather be starting for the Tacoma Rainiers than sitting and watching with the Seattle Mariners? The question seemed to surprise him.
“I have not thought about that,” he said.
Neither, apparently, have the Mariners.
“He’s doing his job,” Willis said. “It’s a tough role, but he’s accepted the job.”