By Ryan Divish The News Tribune
SEATTLE — On a night when almost all of Japan was watching back home, the quiet veteran, pitching on his 32nd birthday showed the young superstar that he still is a pretty damn good pitcher.
Hisashi Iwakuma, an all-star in Japan and an afterthought as a signee by the Mariners last season, outdueled fellow countryman Yu Darvish, the highly-coveted, highly-paid Rangers signee last season, in front of a crowd of 15,029 at Safeco Field and a television viewership of 100 times that back in their home country.
Iwakuma pitched 62⁄3 innings, giving up just one run on three hits with a walk and six strikeouts. His performance led the Mariners to a much-needed 3-1 win over the Texas Rangers on a chilly Friday night.
The victory snapped a three-game losing streak, and improved Seattle to 5-7 on the season. And for a night, the victory quelled some of the fears and doubts of early panicking Mariners fans.
“It was a very big game,” Iwakuma said through translator Antony Suzuki. “Obviously we were on a losing streak and I wanted to stop that losing streak, and behind that I got to face Darvish, too. So, it was a very big win for us.”
Iwakuma cruised through the first three innings perfect, but any no-hitter thoughts were ended by Ian Kinsler’s home run to left field. It was a high fly ball down the line that barely cleared the wall. In the previously configured Safeco Field, it would have been caught.
“It is what is,” Iwakuma said, while chuckling about the walls. “But I have to keep the ball down and that ball was up.”
It was one of the rare mistakes he made in the game.
“He threw the ball well again,” Mariners manager Eric Wedge said. “He was strong and had a good sinker tonight.”
Iwakuma’s catcher was certainly impressed.
“He was just outstanding,” Kelly Shoppach said. “The way he commanded every pitch to both sides of the plate was pretty special.”
About the only thing that could stop Iwakuma was the nagging blister on the middle finger of his pitching hand. The friction from throwing his split-finger fastball kept aggravating the blister, which got worse and worse as the game progressed.
“It has more stress on it than the other pitches do,” Iwakuma said of the split-finger fastball.
Iwakuma threw a nasty split-finger to Nelson Cruz, striking him out for the second out of the seventh inning, and immediately looked down at the blister on his finger. Wedge had seen enough.
“It’s still an issue,” Wedge said. “It’s the reason we got him out of there. You just don’t want to leave him in there too long and push it over the edge.”
Iwakuma has battled this blister since the spring, but it hasn’t caused him to miss a start. It just seems to get raw after about 70 to 80 pitches.
“I will be ready to go by my next start,” Iwakuma said.
Darvish wasn’t bad. He just wasn’t as good as Iwakuma. The Mariners got all their runs against him in the first inning.
Raul Ibanez, who failed late in Thursday’s loss, delivered an RBI single, while Kyle Seager scored a pair of runs, yanking a double to right field off of Mitch Moreland’s glove at first base.
“He just had trouble with his command, mainly of the fastball, but after the first inning, he settled in and put up five zeroes,” Texas manager Ron Washington said.
It seemed like the Mariners would get at least a few more. But of course they didn’t. In the third inning, they had runners on first and second with nobody out, but strikeouts from Ibanez and Justin Smoak and ground out from Seager stopped the rally.
Really, Darvish found a rhythm after he hit Bay for the second time in that third inning. After that pitch, he mowed down the next 12 batters he faced. He exited after six innings work, giving up just those three early runs on three hits with eight strikeouts, a walk and two hit batters.
“He went to a ton of offspeed pitches,” Wedge said. “He pitched completely different as the game went on.”
The missed chances continued against the Texas bullpen. The Mariners had bases loaded in the seventh with one out, but Jason Bay grounded into an inning ending double play.
“We most definitely did,” Wedge said of the chances. “We had some other opportunities. A couple of double plays hurt us.”
The Mariners bullpen was able to make the 3-1 lead stand. Steven Pryor pitched Seattle out of a sticky spot in the seventh striking out pinch hitter Craig Gentry looking with runners on first and second to end the inning. Pryor also fought through a single from Elvis Andrus and a double from Adrian Beltre in the eighth to keep the Rangers scoreless. Wilhelmsen pitched a perfect ninth, getting three pop up outs to pick up his fourth save of the season.
“We are fortunate that Pryor and Wilhelmsen did what they did to finish it off,” Wedge said.