By Bob Dutton The News Tribune
Think the Mariners missed Hisashi Iwakuma while he spent the season’s first month recovering from an injured finger? Think also what it means now that he’s back.
For perspective, consider how two amazing streaks intertwined to the Mariners’ benefit Thursday night in a 1-0 victory over the Kansas City Royals at Safeco Field.
Iwakuma (2-0) pitched eight innings in just his second start back from the disabled list and has now worked 48 2/3 scoreless innings against American League Central Division opponents over the last two seasons.
That’s the first streak.
“Today, I was very close to 100 percent,” Iwakuma said through interpreter Antony Suzuki. “As the game got deeper, I was able to command all of my pitches. All of my pitches were working well today.”
Even so, Iwakuma was spent after eight innings, having thrown 93 pitches while limiting the Royals to four singles. That’s what he told manager Lloyd McClendon.
“Yeah, eight innings was good for me,” Iwakuma said. “Obviously, you want to go out again, but you don’t want to force anything. I thought that I did my part for the day.”
Iwakuma’s streak includes eight innings that last time he pitched at Safeco, which was Sept. 25, 2013 in a 6-0 victory over the Royals.
And that brings up the second streak.
The Royals haven’t scored in their last three games at the corner of Edgar and Dave. Yep, 27 straight zeroes. They were beaten 4-0 by James Paxton the night before Iwakuma’s previous gem.
This one, though, was tense to the end.
The Mariners, when Iwakuma departed, called on Fernando Rodney to protect the one-run lead. Rodney wobbled through a high-drama ninth but completed the shutout for his 10th save in 11 chances.
When he stranded the tying and go-ahead runs, and then punctuated his save with his trademark bow-and-arrow salute, the Mariners had their 11th victory in 14 games.
“Sometimes, you have to win a game 1-0,” McClendon said. “It’s not always, `We’re going to go out and bang and get five, six, seven, eight runs.’ Sometimes, you need to win those 1-0’s also.”
Royals starter Danny Duffy, a hard-throwing lefty, was nearly as good as
Iwakuma; he held the Mariners to just two hits in six-plus innings.
That’s all the Mariners finished with, too — those two hits — but both came in the third inning and produced the game’s only run.
Mike Zunino led off with a double into the left-center gap and went to third when the McClendon opted to play little ball by calling on Michael Saunders to sacrifice.
Saunders got the bunt down, which moved Zunino to third.
“Their guy (Duffy) has great stuff when he’s in strike zone,” McClendon said. “Kuma was on. We knew it was going to be a low-scoring game. We figured if we could pick up a run, we’d have a chance.”
Duffy (1-3) struck out Stefen Romero, which prompted Royals manager Ned Yost to call for an intentional walk to Robinson Cano. That got the game to Corey Hart, who once played for Yost in Milwaukee.
Hart sent a hard grounder up the middle for an RBI single — and then gestured toward the Royals’ dugout at Yost and coach Dale Sveum, who also managed in Milwaukee.
“I kind of gave a little point to the dugout after I got the hit,” Hart said. “I liked the RBI, but I liked doing it against the old managers. I had a little extra motivation.”
And that was it.
“Anytime a pitcher throws like that,” Hart said, “you try to scrap for any run you can get across. One was enough.”
The Royals never solved Iwakuma, whose streak against the AL Central is the longest by a pitcher against division opponents since Orel Hershiser of the Dodgers went 55 innings against National League West teams in 1988.
“He had a tremendous split,” Yost said, “and he make mistakes with it…It looks like it’s going to be a strike, and then the bottom drops out of it.”
It was the sort of performance that reminded the Mariners what they missed over the season’s opening weeks in not having their other All-Star pitcher to support Felix Hernandez in their rotation.
“When you have a legit No. 1 and a legit No. 2,” McClendon said. “it gives you a sense of who you are … It’s like an electric blanket. You feel good when it’s on, and I feel good when they’re out there.”