By Ryan Divish The News Tribune
PITTSBURGH — Dustin Ackley wasn’t trying to be profound. In fact, he was pretty matter of fact in the statement. Then again, it takes a lot to get Ackley to get very emotional about anything.
Still, it just seemed so casual when he said started talking about the early season success of Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma as if everybody in baseball was thinking the same way.
“They’re arguably the best 1-2 starters in all of baseball,” the Seattle Mariners second baseman said and then moved on to the next topic.
The best No. 1 and 2 starters in all of baseball? That’s a pretty bold statement considering the pitching talent in baseball.
And yet upon closer inspection, Ackley was right.
Just over a month into the season, there has not been a more dominant pair of starters in a pitching rotation than the King and Kuma.
So what does Hernandez think of such talk.
“I don’t know,” he said with a sly grin. “That’s tough. We just go out there and do what we do and get people out.That’s all we do.”
They get people out better than most pitchers. The numbers don’t lie.
Hernandez has made seven starts, posting a 4-2 record. He’s given up nine earned runs in 502/3 innings pitch this season for a 1.60 earned run average. He’s struck out 51 batters and walked just seven. He his walks plus hits over innings pitched (WHIP) is 0.908.
Beyond the numbers, he’s assumed a leadership role in the clubhouse and embraced the idea of being the face of the Mariners franchise after signing a $175 million contract this spring. If anyone thought Hernandez would suddenly become content because of his payday, they would have been wrong.
“I love the fact that he doesn’t assume anything, Mariners manager Eric Wedge said. “He knows he has to go out there and do the work in between his starts. That’s one of the many reasons why he is who he is.”
Iwakuma has been almost as good. He’s also made seven starts and posted a 3-1 record. He’s pitched 422/3 innings this season — a number that is lower than expected because of a painful blister on the inside of the middle finger on his pitching hand. He’s allowed just eight earned runs for an ERA of 1.61. He’s struck out 42 hitters and walked just eight. His WHIP is a minuscule 0.761.
“He’s aggressive,” Hernandez said of Iwakuma. “He’s attacking the hitters. He has a great fastball and a nasty split-finger. That pitch is unbelievable.”
The next comparable duo is Detroit’s Justin Verlander and Doug Fister. Verlander is 4-2 in seven starts with a 1.55 ERA. He has 50 strikeouts and 13 walks in 46 innings pitched. Fister is 4-0 in six starts with a 2.48 ERA. In 40 innings, he struck out 29 batters and walked just seven.
What’s unfair about the Tigers is they have Anabel Sanchez (3-2 with a 1.83 ERA) and Max Scherzer (4-0, 3.43 ERA) in the back of the rotation.
To be fair, Hernandez and Iwakuma are doing more with less because they have to.
This was expected from Hernandez. That’s why the Mariners signed him to what was at the time the most lucrative contract ever given to a pitcher in baseball.
Well, they were hoping he would be a solid middle of the rotation guy. The 32 year-old right-hander showed some promise in the second half of last season, going 8-4 in 16 starts with a 2.65 ERA. It was good enough to earn a 2-year, $14 million contract in the offseason.
“Just gaining the experience helped,” Wedge said. “He’s a smart pitcher and he just executes his pitches better than almost everyone we have.”
Everyone but Hernandez. But even he has come away impressed with Iwakuma.
“He’s got great command of all his pitches,” Hernandez said. “He’s attacking hitters with the fastball.”
Admittedly, the scenario of pitching behind a former Cy Young award winner like Hernandez is ideal for Iwakuma, who is still learning how to pitch in the majors, which is a little different than the Japanese Professional Baseball League.
“Everything in general, I try to imitate,” Iwakuma said through translator Antony Suzuki. “You get to see him pitch the day before I pitch and you try to imitate that. You see how he pitches his game and you analyze it and take advantage of it.”
The Mariners haven’t completely taken advantage of the duo’s outstanding outings. Seattle is 9-5 in their respective starts. But it could be better. The team is providing just 3.28 runs for Hernandez in his starts and 3.65 runs for Iwakuma. Still Seattle has only lost back-to-back starts from Hernandez and Iwakuma once this season.
For Wedge the situation is slightly reminiscent of his time in Cleveland when he had CC Sabathia as his No. 1 followed by Cliff Lee at the No. 2.
“It takes some time to get to that point,” Wedge said. “And it took us a little bit of time in Cleveland, and it has here, too. But when you have people at the top of your rotation that you can count on, it’s going to keep coming around. What I mean by that is, from a position player’s standpoint or the other pitchers or the bullpen, you know that every three or four days that those guys are going to be out there and that’s going to go a long way.”