By Bob Dutton The News Tribune
ST. PETERSBURG, FLA. — As teammates for five years at Rakuten in Japan, Mariners right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma was the senpai, the mentor, in his relationship with Yankees right-hander Masahiro Tanaka.
That changes Tuesday night when the two see one another for the first time as opponents when the Mariners open a three-game series against New York at Safeco Field.
“I look forward to the competition,” said Iwakuma, who is 4-2 with a 2.66 ERA in seven starts after missing the season’s first month because of an injured finger.
“We’ve always been on the same side until a couple of years ago. You look at him, and he was a teammate. Part of a family. You used to root for the guy but, now, you’re going against him.”
Until Monday, it appeared the two would face one another in today’s series opener. But the Yankees pushed back their rotation after getting rained out Monday night in Kansas City.
That means Tanaka, instead of facing Iwakuma, will now start Wednesday and oppose right-hander Chris Young. The Yankees are starting lefty Vidal Nuno against Iwakuma.
So much for the marquee matchup.
Tanaka, 25, has been a sensation in his rookie season, going 9-1 with a 2.02 ERA in 12 starts after concluding seven seasons at Rakuten by going 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA in 2013.
“He always had a high ceiling,” Iwakuma said. “As he matured, he’s gotten better with his command and his pitching in general. To compete against him at this stage, in the major leagues, is something special for me.”
The two were teammates at Rakuten from 2007-11, but the Golden Eagles finished with a winning record in just one of those five seasons. Iwakuma, now 33, signed with the Mariners in January 2012.
Asked if he had any advice for his current teammates in facing Tanaka, Iwakuma smiled and said: “I do have some tips, but that’s top secret.”
Felix Hernandez didn’t get a victory Sunday despite a career-high 15 strikeouts over seven shutout innings, but he was selected as the American League’s player of the week.
Hernandez won his other start last week by holding the Yankees to two runs in seven innings in a 10-2 victory. He had 23 strikeouts, one walk over 14 innings in two starts while allowing two runs and 12 hits.
It marked the second time that Hernandez has won the award; he won it for Aug. 13-19, 2012 — the week that he pitched a perfect game against the Rays. He has been the AL pitcher of the month on three occasions.
Third baseman Kyle Seager shared the award with Chicago first baseman Jose Abreu for the week of April 21-27.
Outfielder Michael Saunders and first baseman Justin Smoak remained out of the starting lineup for the series finale because of injuries and will be reevaluated Tuesday after the club returns home.
Saunders left Friday’s opener after experiencing discomfort in his right shoulder on a swing; Smoak has battled a sore left quadriceps muscle for much of the last two weeks.
“Saunders is better,” manager Lloyd McClendon said, “and we’ll see how Smoak is (later) today. Neither one of them is going to play. Then we’ve got the long flight home, and we’ll see about (Tuesday).”
The Mariners, as expected, activated first baseman Ji-Man Choi from the suspended list once he completed his 50-game suspension, which resulted from a drug test that revealed steroids.
Choi, 23, was assigned to Class AA Jackson prior to Monday’s game at Birmingham (White Sox). He went 2-for-4 with a walk and two RBI in a 6-5 loss.
To clear space for Choi on the 40-man roster, the Mariners transferred left-hander James Paxton to the 60-day disabled list from the 15-day list.
It’s a paper move; Paxton has already served 60 days and remains eligible to be activated at any time. He was scheduled to begin throwing Monday in his recovery from a sore shoulder.
Choi was off to a strong start at Tacoma prior to his April 17 suspension — batting .394 with 18 total bases in 40 plate appearances over 10 games.
The Mariners entered the week with a 50.9 percent chance of reaching the postseason, according to ESPN calculations. The only American League club that rated a better probability were the three current division leaders (Toronto, Detroit and Oakland). … The Mariners are 27-16 since breaking their eight-game losing streak. … The Mariners have four shutouts in an eight-game span for the first time since April 21-28, 1993. … Robinson Cano’s two-run double in the third inning was the first extra-base hit of his career on an 0-2 pitch with the bases loaded. It was also Cano’s first hit with the bases loaded as a Mariner. He was hitless in three previous such situations. … Erasmo Ramirez is the first starting pitcher in Mariners history to be removed after 42/3 scoreless innings.
Hi-A High Desert right-handed reliever Brett Shankin was picked as the California League pitcher of the week for June 2-8 after allowing only one hit in seven scoreless innings over two appearances.
Shankin also struck out 10 and walked three. He is 3-1 with a 3.06 ERA overall in 321/3 innings in 14 outings with 32 strikeouts and 12 walks.
The Mariners selected Shankin, 24, in the 28 round of the 2011 draft.
It was 12 years ago Tuesday — June 10, 2002 — that the Mariners played in St. Louis for the first time in franchise history and treated baseball’s self-proclaimed best fans to a 10-0 victory.
Jamie Moyer permitted just five hits in a complete-game shutout.
The game was also marked the first time in Major League history that two Japanese-born position players played in the same game: Mariners right fielder Ichiro Suzuki, and Cardinals center fielder So Taguchi.
The Mariners open an eight-game homestand at 7:10 p.m. Tuesday against the Yankees at Safeco Field.
Right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma (4-2 with a 2.66 ERA) will face Yankees left-hander Vidal Nuno (1-2 and 5.33).
The Mariners play three games against the Yankees, three against Texas and two against San Diego before returning to the road.