Sometime between April 29, when the 2012 Seattle Mariners took permanent residence on the south side of .500, and Wednesday afternoon, when Ichiro Suzuki’s third strikeout snuffed a ninth-inning rally in a 2-1 defeat to Oakland at Safeco Field, general manager Jack Zduriencik became a trading-market seller.
Zduriencik is familiar with the drill. He sent coveted left-handed starter Cliff Lee to Texas two years ago, and last summer, within 24 hours, dealt one starting pitcher to Detroit (Doug Fister) and another to Boston (Erik Bedard).
Still another veteran starter, Kevin Millwood, was the Mariners’ obvious bargaining chip this season. Because he’s 37 and pencils in as a No. 5 starter in any rotation, Millwood never figured to command more than a C-plus prospect. But he was worth something to a contending team desperate for an arm to help get it through the stretch drive. The man knows how to pitch.
Five weeks ago, Millwood threw a complete-game shutout against the Rockies in Colorado – only eight other pitchers have done that in Coors Field – and as recently as June 8, back in Seattle, he held the Dodgers hitless through six innings before straining his right groin.
The no-hitter was preserved as a group effort, but not so Millwood’s status as trade bait. After that partial gem against the Dodgers, he was slammed by the Giants at home and the Padres on the road. On Wednesday, Millwood needed only one pitch – to A’s leadoff hitter Coco Crisp, who put it in the right-field seats – to surrender any thoughts of a possible shutout.
Millwood, who is as animated on the mound as a tree stump, went back to work. But with two out and nobody on in the top of the third, the injury flared up again.
“He walked off the mound kind of funny,” said catcher John Jaso. “I thought he was mad about something, but then I remembered he’s not a guy who shows much emotion.”
Millwood was done for the day.
“He felt some discomfort,” said manager Eric Wedge, “and I didn’t want to take any chances.”
Groin strains, like hamstring strains, are maddeningly persistent. It will be a surprise if Millwood doesn’t miss at least one or two starts, and it will be a shock if he re-establishes his trade value before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline.
The beneficiary of Millwood’s tough luck was Hisashi Iwakuma, the long reliever who replaced him. Signed to a one-year contract as a free agent from Japan’s Pacific League, Iwakuma mostly has been forgotten in a Mariners bullpen stocked with hard throwers.
Iwakuma didn’t make his debut until the season was into its second week, and he didn’t make much of an impression until Wednesday, when the right-hander held the A’s to one hit during a 49-pitch effort that lasted 32/3 innings.
“I was impressed by how he mixed up his locations,” said Jaso. “He kept batters off balance by executing pitches on both sides of the plate.”
There’s a reason the Mariners have been reluctant to overwork Iwakuma or, for that matter, give him any kind of work. Last season, a sore right shoulder put him on the disabled list for more than two months. The injury contributed to a disappointing 6-7 record for the 2008 winner of the Japan League’s Eiji Sawamura award. (Eiji Sawamura, roughly translated, means “Cy Young” in Japanese.)
Although we know little about the 31-year old who was born in Tokyo, we know that he doesn’t consider himself a long reliever. He pitched 226 games in Japan and started 225 of them.
But a gig is a gig, and on Wednesday, it was Iwakuma’s challenge to warm up in the top of the third and take on the A’s as a sort of virtual starter.
“Iwakuma was big for us,” said Wedge. “It’s a tough thing to do, to come into that situation. He gave us a chance to win the ballgame.”
Of course, the Mariners being the Mariners, all Iwakuma had to show for his effort was the first box-score “L” of his big-league career. The Seattle offense was inept again in Safeco Field, but then again, when isn’t it? Mariners pitchers combined to strike out 37 batters during a series in which they held the A’s to five runs – and yet the Mariners lost two of three games.
Seattle pitchers sometimes have no choice but to be perfect, not close to perfect. On a day when he showed his ability to pitch to both sides of the plate, Iwakuma gave Yoenes Cespedes too much of the plate in the top of the seventh.
Cespedes, the rookie Cuban import who seems to feed off the Mariners, jacked a 1-1 pitch on a line to left-center field, the part of the ballpark where the ball isn’t supposed to carry. Cespedes carried this one well over the fence.
“Kind of a mistake,” Iwakuma said through a translator, not needing to elaborate.
Still, on an afternoon when Millwood’s trade stock deteriorated to something approximating zero, it had to be heartening for Zduriencik and Wedge to discover a potential starter in their midst. An optimist might look at it this way: The Mariners traded Kevin Millwood for Hisashi Iwakuma.
For a team that lost for the 45th time – with four more games remaining until the season’s halfway point – that’s not a bad consolation prize.
As for the 44 other defeats? There was no consolation, no prizes. And with Millwood’s durability now in question, there’s not even a viable trade scenario to ponder.
But, hey, at least the sun came out, along with the pitcher from the land where it email@example.com