By Bob Dutton The News Tribune
SEATTLE — Hisashi Iwakuma is, when it comes to marketing and promotions, the stuff dreams are made of. As a guy to run out behind Felix Hernandez, he’s pretty good, too.
On a Saturday night when the SeattleMariners distributed 20,000 Iwakuma bobblehead dolls, the real-life version dialed up a masterful performance in a 6-2 victory over the Oakland A’s at Safeco Field.
Iwakuma (8-4) came within one out of the first complete game and first shutout of his career. He exited to raucous cheers after yielding a two-run homer to Brandon Moss in the ninth inning.
“It would have been the perfect scenario,” Iwakuma said. “The situation lined up, but you’ve got to tip your cap. It was a fastball down and away, and he got to it. He was waiting for that pitch, and he got every piece of it.”
That was, pretty much, the night’s only blemish.
Yoervis Medina replaced Iwakuma and got the final out in a victory that boosted the Mariners to 51-43 and ensured they will enter the All-Star break holding a lead in the American League wild-card chase.
Iwakuma’s gem came one night after Hernandez opened the final series before the All-Star break by beating first-place Oakland.
“It doesn’t get too much better than that,” third baseman Kyle Seager said. “Anytime you go into a series and you’ve got those two guys up front, you know if you get a few runs, you’ll be on the top end.”
The Mariners backed Iwakuma with homers by Seager and Robinson Cano in front of rocking crowd 39,204 that spent the closing innings bobbling those 20,000 bobbleheads.
Iwakuma said the doll is a “very good” likeness. The real thing overmatched an Oakland lineup this is missing Coco Crisp, Josh Reddick and Alberto Callaspo.
“It’s been a bit of a fight to score a bunch of runs,” A’s manager Bob Melvin said. “On top of that, two well-pitched games against us.”
Moss’ homer kept Iwakuma’s night from being perfect, and manager Lloyd McClendon showed no hesitation in pulling him with a four-run lead even though he was only one out from a complete game.
“I took him as far as I could take him,” McClendon said. “I don’t get caught up in complete games. I know you guys like to write about it. I know the fans love it. I get caught up in winning games.
“I know that’s a darn good team in that other dugout. If you give them an inch, they’re looking to take a yard. Kuma started missing his spots in the ninth, and we got him out of there.”
The Mariners grabbed a 1-0 lead on Dustin Ackley’s RBI single in the second inning before Seager crushed a two-run homer in the fifth.
All of that came against Oakland starter Jesse Chavez, who exited after James Jones’ two-out double in the sixth when Melvin opted for Fernando Abad to face Cano in a left-on-left match-up.
Cano flied out to deep center.
Chavez (7-6) gave up three runs and 10 hits in 52⁄3 innings.
Cano atoned in his next at-bat.
The Mariners nearly added an insurance run against Jim Johnson in the eighth, but A’s left fielder Yoenis Cespedes made a terrific throw that cut down Willie Bloomquist at the plate.
It was a temporary reprieve.
Johnson walked Jones, and Cano followed with a booming three-run homer that pretty much put the game on ice.
“You’re up by three,” Cano said, “and then you get three more. That’s big against that team. Everybody can hit over there. This is a team you want to beat. This is a team that’s in first place and you want to catch.”
The Mariners still trail Oakland by seven games in the American League West Division, but they hold a 2 ½-game lead over Toronto in the race for the second wild-card spot.
And Iwakuma, after a pair of rough outings in late June, has now won his last three starts while limiting opponents to three runs in 212⁄3 innings.
“My last game of the first half,” he said, “I wanted to finish strong, and I’m glad I did finish strong. I feel like the momentum is there. I feel like I can start off the second half strong as well.”
Sounds like the next move is up to the marketing-and-promotions people.