SEATTLE — The moment didn’t seem new to Hisashi Iwakuma. He’d just struck out Alcides Escobar and began to leave the pitchers mound at Safeco Field. He knew his job was done for the night, as did his teammates and the warmly dressed 15,347 fans in attendance.
As Iwakuma began walking towards the Mariners’ dugout, the fans rose and gave him a standing ovation. His teammates were at the top step waiting and cheering. But they weren’t just applauding the stellar effort that eventually led to a 6-0 win over the Kansas City Royals on Wednesday night, they were also applauding a brilliant season.
The stone-faced Iwakuma broke from his zen-like competitive trance to show a little emotion, he flashed his shy smile and removed his cap and saluted the fans.
“I’m very happy and very grateful at the same time,” Iwakuma said through translator Antony Suzuki. “I’ve never experienced that before. It was the first time I’ve gone through that.”
That experience won’t be the last if he continues to pitch like he has this season. With the win, Iwakuma finished the year with a 14-6 record and a 2.66 earned run average — third lowest in the American League. He never missed a start, make 33 of them and pitching a team-high 2192⁄3 innings, which is the second most in the AL. Iwakuma made 10 starts where he pitched six innings or more without allowing a run.
“One of my goals, my ultimate goals was to stay healthy through the long course of the season and stay in the rotation,” he said. “I was able to accomplish that goal and pitch 200-plus innings and I’m very happy for that.”
The Mariners are very happy for Iwakuma. After a strong second half last season following his move to starter, Seattle signed Iwakuma to a two-year contract extension worth $14 million. They are paying him just $6.5 million this season, which is a steal for what he’s given them.
“It’s been a lot of fun to watch him have a great season and a lot of fun to watch him progress over here,” manager Eric Wedge said. “He does the work. He pays attention to the game. He prepares himself well. And he handles everything out there in a grand fashion. I really appreciate that.”
But Wedge appreciates Iwakuma’s competitive side even more. Quiet and shy away from the field, Iwakuma is a bulldog on the mound.
“It’s in there,” Wedge said. “He’s grinding inside. He’s a fighter.”
His teammates know it as well. And occasionally, a bit of fiery emotion will leak from his calm exterior.
“He keeps composure pretty well, but he has that quiet fire to him,” third baseman Kyle Seager said. “He will get upset at himself at times.”
There wasn’t much for Iwakuma to get upset about against the Royals. He carved them up for eight innings, allowing just four hits and striking out nine batters. He didn’t allow a single runner to reach third base.
“His last five or six starts he’s been as strong, if not stronger, as we’ve seen him this season,” Wedge said. “He was consistent in his delivery and executing pitches with good stuff.”
Iwakuma ends the season with a streak of 23 scoreless innings, dating back to the fourth inning of a game against Tampa Bay on Sept. 4. It’s his second streak of 20 ore more scoreless innings this season. He had 232⁄3 innings streak form May 26 to June 10. He’s the only pitcher to have two scoreless innings streaks of 20 or more this season, and the first Mariners pitcher to do it since Freddy Garcia in 1999.
His overall numbers could be even better, but he had four consecutive no decisions from August 27 to Sept. 13 where he posted a 2.10 ERA. The Mariners bullpen failed to protect four leads for him and he received five no decisions in starts where he allowed no earned runs.
“He’s special,” Seager said. “You get guys coming to third base all the time talking about how nasty he is and how the ball is moving all over the place and you can’t get a good swing on him. That’s about as good of a compliment as you can get.”
The Mariners actually complimented Iwakuma with some run support Wednesday.
On a cold night that felt more like November than September, the Mariners made the ball travel through the frigid air.
Mike Zunino blasted a solo homer off of Royals’ starter Ervin Santana to lead off the fifth inning.
“In my first at-bat, I got a fastball I wished I got the barrel on so in that next at-bat I looked for the same pitch and I got it,” Zunino said.
Kyle Seager added a two run double to right field push the lead to 3-0. There was more power in the eighth inning. Michael Saunders hit a solo homer to right field off of reliever Will Smith and Zunino followed with a laser of a shot to center field for his second homer. It was the first multi-homer game of his career.
“He has some thump in that bat,” Wedge said of his rookie catcher. “He’s still learning how to hit. But you saw a brief glimpse there what this young man is capable of. As good as that first one was, that second one was even more impressive.”