Iwakuma in national spotlight despite life in local shadows

November 13, 2013 

Seattle Mariners pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma waves to cheering fans as he rides with his wife, Madoka, and children down 42nd Street in New York City during a parade of baseball all-stars in July. Iwakuma finished the season 14-6 and is a finalist for the AL Cy Young award, which will be announced Wednesday.

JON GERBERG/THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

When the Seattle Mariners introduced Lloyd McClendon as their new manager on Thursday, no question put to McClendon was more obvious than the initial question: What compelled you into wanting this job?

“Felix, Felix and Felix,” said McClendon, whose answer drew the intended laughs from an audience that has come to recognize pitcher Felix Hernandez on a first-name bases.

I can imagine the response in the Safeco Field interview room had McClendon offered a different but wholly legitimate answer to the “why-do-you-to-manage-the-Mariners?” question.

“Hisashi, Hisashi and Hisashi.”

The silence would have been awkward to the point of wince-inducing. Hisashi? What’s Hisashi, and why would McClendon take on one of the most challenging gigs in baseball to get it?

Despite his emergence this past season as the Mariners’ most dependably efficient starting pitcher, Hisashi Iwakuma literally remains an afterthought with Mariners fans. When they envision the top of the team’s rotation, their first thought is of Felix, followed by that guy from Japan, Hiroshi or Hideki or whatever his name is.

The name is Hisashi Iwakuma, and while he might not the most underrated athlete in the history of Seattle pro sports, I’m challenged to nominate a better candidate.

Wednesday afternoon at 3, when the Cy Young Award winners are announced, Iwakuma will finish among the top three in

the American League. That’s not a hunch; that’s a fact. Finalists for baseball’s postseason trophies were made public last week, an effort to infuse the MLB Network’s awards shows with the suspense of the Oscars or the Grammys.

Iwakuma’s immediate competition for the AL Cy Young is down to the Detroit Tigers’ Max Scherzer — his 21-3 record makes him the favorite — and the Texas Rangers’ Yu Darvish, who led the league with 277 strikeouts.

Iwakuma’s 14-6 record wasn’t as gaudy as Scherzer’s, and his 185 strikeouts made him look like a soft-tossing junkball specialist in comparison with Darvish, his more charismatic Japanese countryman. But beyond the eye-catching numbers in the Cy Young discussion are some intriguing statistics.

Deprived of the offensive production Scherzer enjoyed with the Tigers, Iwakuma started 13 games without finishing as the pitcher of record. He pitched at least eight innings in four of those no-decisions. Had Iwakuma gotten a little help from his friends — be they batters or relievers — he would’ve been a 20-game winner.

That’s speculation, of course. What we do know is that Iwakuma’s solid case for the Cy Young combines both old-school stats (2.66 ERA, third in the league) with such advanced metrics as WHIP (walks and hits per inning: He finished at 1.006, a Mariners record) and WAR, the “wins above replacement” total calculated by Baseball-Reference.com. (Iwakuma’s pitching WAR was 7.0, best in the league.)

What we also know is that while Felix was essentially shut down in September — good call, as there were some concerns about an oblique injury, and no need to push him with nothing at stake — Iwakuma sprinted to the finish line. In five September starts, he gave up three earned runs. He gave up no runs, earned or otherwise, over his final 23 innings.

And yet Hisashi Iwakuma, a Cy Young Award finalist, is off the radar screen in Seattle. He showed up from the Japan League long after the fanfare that accompanied the arrival of Mariners pitchers Mac Suzuki and Kazuhiro Sasaki, and that perennial All-Star and future Hall of Fame outfielder Ichiro Suzuki.

Like Ichiro, Iwakuma requires an interpreter for his encounters with the media. Unlike Ichiro, Iwakuma doesn’t wear pink high-top sneakers and self-designed T-shirts and share random thoughts that, translated into English, sound like mysterious parables delivered by an oracle.

Iwakuma’s presence in the Mariners clubhouse was so forgotten in 2011, his first season in America, that then-manager Eric Wedge didn’t put the right-hander into a game until April 20. He was summoned in a mop-up role for No. 3 starter Hector Noesi.

Unable to find a spot on a starting staff that also included Blake Beavan and Kevin Millwood, Iwakuma pitched 15 innings through May. He got his first start on July 2, and joined the rotation on a regular basis three weeks later.

Since Wedge took the mop out of Iwakuma’s hands, concluding that his sophisticated four-pitch repertoire might be more effective than the batting-practice lobs of Noesi, Iwakuma has flourished.

He earned a trip to the 2013 All-Star Game (typical of his low-key Mariners career, he was ineligible to play because he started the previous Sunday) and now is seriously contending for the Cy Young Award.

If this man is standing next to you in a grocery store checkout line, would it occur to you that he’s a finalist for one of the two most prestigious pitching trophies in the world? If he walked through the door right now, could you place the face? The voice?

You couldn’t, and neither could I, and that’s what makes Iwakuma’s improbable vault into the Cy Young Award race so cool.

He did it without hype, without national baseball pundits supporting his groundswell campaign, without Mariners fans on the bandwagon, without a first name that rolls off the tongue.

Hisashi, Hisashi and Hisashi.

Just practicing.

john.mcgrath@ thenewstribune.com

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