BY Ryan Divish The News Tribune
SEATTLE – The Hisashi Iwakuma campaign for an all-star spot continued Monday night in its usual quiet, consistent, effective way.
While fans in Toronto are campaigning and rallying to make Munenori Kawasaki an all-star and other teams brazenly promote their position players for all-star accolades – including the Mariners – Iwakuma receives no such pleasantries as a pitcher.
But that’s OK. His performances and numbers may be more than enough to send him to New York for the midsummer classic at Citi Field.
Iwakuma tossed seven strong innings, allowing just one unearned run on four hits with a walk and eight strikeouts to lead the Mariners to a 3-2 victory over the Houston Astros at Safeco Field.
With the win, he improved to 7-1 and lowered his earned-run average to 1.79 – second best in the American League.
“He’s been about as consistent as any pitcher in baseball for quite a while now,” Mariners manager Eric Wedge said.
That consistency actually goes beyond this season. It stretches all the way back to July of last season when he was moved into the starting rotation. In 16 starts last year, he went 8-4 with a 2.65 ERA. If you couple that with the 14 starts this season, Iwakuma would be at 30 starts – a normal year’s workload for a starter – and he’d be 15-5 with a 2.27 ERA in a 186 1/3 innings.
“It started about the all-star break last year,” Wedge said. “I thought he was outstanding in the second half of last year and even better than that this year.”
There is no big secret or changes.
“It’s a lot of the same,” Wedge said. “He’s just executing his pitches, staying in his delivery and he feels the game.”
When was the last time Iwakuma felt this in control and locked in on the mound with his pitches and command?
“In 2008, I did very well back in Japan with the Rakuten Eagles,” he said through translator Antony Suzuki.
“Did very well” is a slight understatement.
Iwakuma went 21-4 with a 1.87 ERA in 28 starts in the Nippon Professional League, earning the Pacific League MVP and the Eiji Sawamura Award, which is the equivalent of the Cy Young in Japan.
“Usually when I have a good start, I have a good year,” he said. “This is a good sign.”
The run that Iwakuma is on right now is as good as any starting pitcher in baseball. He hasn’t allowed an earned run in 28 innings. The unearned run that came across in the third inning on a sacrifice fly snapped a stretch of 22 1/3 scoreless innings pitched.
And that unearned run was all he would allow. Just three more runners reached base the rest of the way. The only real threat came in the seventh inning when Carlos Pena doubled to left to lead off the inning. Iwakuma then issued a rare walk – just his 15th of the season – to Chris Carter.
But he worked out of the minor jam. He struck out Jimmy Paredes, who couldn’t get a sacrifice bunt down, and then got Matt Dominguez to ground into a 4-6-3 double play with Mariners second baseman Carlos Triunfel making a nifty play at second base to start the twin killing.
“Like always, I was just trying to slow the game down and pitch with composure,” Iwakuma said. “I was imagining getting a double play in that situation.”
With the Mariners offense slumping considerably in the past week, it seemed unlikely Iwakuma was going to receive much run support. And he didn’t.
Raul Ibanez blasted his 12th homer of the season – a solo shot to right-center – to tie the game at 1-1 in the fourth inning.
But the rest of the run support came largely from the Astros and their inability to make routine plays on defense.
Dominguez’s throwing error to first on a ground ball with two outs in the fifth inning allowed Kyle Seager to scamper home to give the Mariners a 2-1 lead.
In the seventh inning, Houston second baseman Jose Altuve dropped a routine throw to second for a force out, Jason Bay would later score on Michael Morse’s double to left-center.
That extra run proved crucial since Seattle closer Tom Wilhelmsen gave up a run in the ninth while recording his 16th save.
“The defense has been solid all year and tonight it let us down,” Astros manager Bo Porter said.
Without the errors, the Mariners and Astros might still be playing. Seattle squandered several scoring opportunities, going 2-for-12 with runners in scoring position and stranding 11 runners.
“We’ve got to put better up at-bats up in those situations when we have a chance to get another run,” Wedge said. “Whether it’s two-out RBIs or you have runner in scoring position with less than two outs, whatever it may be, there were probably five or six at-bats tonight where we could have tacked on another run and didn’t do it.”