DETROIT — If there was any debate, it ended on Wednesday night at Comerica Park.
With all due respect to staff ace Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma has been the Seattle Mariners’ best starting pitcher this season. That’s not say Iwakuma is a better pitcher than Hernandez, which no one would argue, but Iwakuma has had the better 2013.
Against the American League Central-leading Detroit Tigers, Iwakuma tossed eight shutout innings, giving up just four hits while striking out six and walking two to lead the Mariners to an 8-0 win.
Iwakuma improved to 13-6 on the season and lowered his earned-run average to 2.76 — third lowest in the American League — while helping the Mariners snap a three-game losing streak in his typical efficient fashion.
“I thought he did a nice job of controlling the baseball game,” manager Eric Wedge said. “When he was ahead, he finished off hitters. And when he was behind, he came back and got into counts. Just a great job.”
The eight shutout innings tied a season high for Iwakuma.
“I had everything working today,” Iwakuma said through translator Antony Suzuki. “I was able to command all my pitches and I was able to concentrate till the eighth inning. I would say this was probably my best game of the season.”
Iwakuma has not allowed a run in 25 consecutive innings pitched on the road, tying the longest streak in club history held by Brian Holman (1989) and Randy Johnson (1994). Fifteen of those innings came on this brutal road trip against the Cardinals and Tigers.
“He has a focus and a routine on the day he pitches which is as good as any starting pitcher I’ve had, especially in-game,” Wedge said. “He’s in the moment. He gets himself in the zone and locks in.”
So what’s Iwakuma’s secret to pitching in unfriendly environments?
“I didn’t know about that fact,” he said about the scoreless streak. “But I don’t what’s kept me going in my last couple starts on the road. It’s just pitching my game, knowing the situation and going through game plans.”
It wasn’t simple for Iwakuma on Wednesday night.
In the first inning, he found himself with bases loaded and two outs and facing Matt Tuiasosopo. Iwakuma calmly struck out the former Mariner with a nasty 1-2 split-finger in the dirt.
The Tigers loaded the bases again in the fourth inning with one out on a single, a walk and an error on third baseman Kyle Seager. But Iwakuma got Hernan Perez to ground into a 6-4-3 double play to end the inning. Opponents are 1-for-10 with four strikeouts and two double plays against Iwakuma with the bases loaded this season.
“I was just being aggressive and staying down in the zone and not rushing,” Iwakuma said. “Just knowing what the situation is like and going after the hitter.”
Iwakuma has now thrown 211 2⁄3 innings this season. There was some talk of shutting him down for the season after he reached 210 innings pitched, but Wedge said Iwakuma’s recent performances have changed the team’s mind. He’ll make one more start before the season ends.
The Mariners helped Iwakuma out by giving him run support early and adding on against Tigers’ ace Justin Verlander (13-12).
Michael Saunders scored the far-from-speedy Justin Smoak all the way from first base with a double to the left-center gap.
“It’s 420 feet to center field,” Smoak said. “I knew they had no chance. With the sore quad I was trying to cruise around and get in there.”
Saunders has made a few minor swing adjustments the past few days and it seems to be working. He has three doubles and a triple in his last two games.
“With what I’ve done the last couple of days, it’s minimal yet it’s encouraging,” he said. “This is something I think will help me stay more consistent.”
Saunders scored moments later when Nick Franklin dumped a single into left field to give Seattle a 2-0 lead.
Smoak didn’t have to do any hard running in the sixth when he belted a solo homer to left field off of Verlander to make it 3-0. It was his 17th homer of the season. It was his sixth career homer in 11 games at Comerica.
“I don’t know,” Smoak said. “I guess it’s all a matter of it coming together here. It’s a good park to hit in.”
Smoak had to turn his wheels on again in the Mariners’ big four-run eighth inning. After driving home Franking Gutierrez with an RBI single off of reliever Phil Coke, Smoak advanced to third on Saunders’ double to right field. Both runners would score later on Al Albuquerque’s wild pitch. Smoak led the way, and Saunders made it when catcher Alex Avila couldn’t find the ball.
So what was more unlikely, Smoak scoring from first on a double or Smoak and Saunders both scoring on wild pitch?
“That’s a hell of a question,” Wedge deadpanned. “As tough it is with Smoaker, I’m going to say two guys scoring on a wild pitch. Plus the guys were giving Smoaker a hard time in there, so I won’t pile on.”