PEORIA, Ariz. — While veteran right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma made three starts for Japan in its gold-medal run through the 2009 World Baseball Classic, he chose this season to skip the tournament for a second straight time.
“It’s always an honor to pitch for your country,” he said Wednesday before the Mariners opened official workouts for pitchers and catchers at the Peoria Sports Complex.
“And I’ve done that before. But this year, my priority was to pitch here and get ready to pitch here for a long season. Make 33 (starts) for the entire season. That’s what I chose.”
The WBC is a 16-nation tournament that begins next month at four first-round sites. It was last held in 2013, prior to Iwakuma’s second season with the Mariners.
Iwakuma, who turns 36 in April, is entering his sixth big-league season and is coming off a year in which he won a career-high 16 games and matched a career-high with 33 starts.
But he also wore down late in the season; Iwakuma failed to last four innings in two of his last three starts. Manager Scott Servais said plans are already in place to ease Iwakuma through spring training in hopes of aiding his durability.
“He really carried us (last season),” Servais said, “especially when Felix went down, and we were struggling to get consistent innings out of our starters. He was our most consistent guy. He did get a little fatigued at the end.”
Iwakuma characterized his spring approach as: “Go slow. Gradually move forward. Not rush. Stay patient.”
Just the opposite of the accelerated push that pitchers such as Felix Hernandez, Yovani Gallardo and Edwin Diaz are making in order to be ready next month for the WBC.
“You just reflect,” Iwakuma said. “I’ve had good Septembers. I’ve had bad Septembers. But overall, going forward, that’s another thing I need to work on — having a good September and finishing strong.”
Servais identified one new point of emphasis this spring for the Mariners prior to Wednesday’s first official workout: Better defense on the mound.
“We made 11 errors last year throwing from our pitchers to the bases,” he said. “We’ll tighten that up. We’ve got a couple (of drills) that will, hopefully, make it a little more fun, a little more challenging and get their focus a little better in that area.
“We made 13 errors as a pitching staff, and 11 of them were throwing.”
All clubs work on improving their mound defense. Pitchers Fielding Practice — PFP — is a staple in every camp.
The Mariners, on Wednesday, worked on handling comeback grounders and bunts in addition to plays requiring pitchers to cover first base.
All routine stuff.
“We’ve just got to put a higher importance on it,” Servais stressed. “I think the numbers back up that we do have to get better at it.”
Hair Club for M’s
While Hernandez arrived Tuesday with a trimmed-back haircut, a notable change from recent years, even a quick glance around the Mariners’ clubhouse suggested the King’s current look marks him as an exception.
“We are a team of hair,” Servais noted. “There’s no doubt. That will be one of the things that stands out this year.”
Servais mentioned the many long cuts to general manager Jerry Dipoto, who responded with a reference to the legendary House of David, a touring baseball team in the early 1900s known for its long hair and beards.
While some clubs enforce strict grooming rules, Servais said the Mariners will remain permissive.
“You’ve heard me say it enough: Be who you are,” Servais said. “That doesn’t mean there won’t be some ribbing and stuff to tighten it up a little bit. But it’s society. Things are changing. I’m not about wearing the uniform the same way. If you’re going to preach, ‘Be who you are and let your personality come out,’ you have to let it go.”