PEORIA, Ariz. — Right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma, the other All-Star in the Mariners’ rotation, received medical clearance Tuesday to begin throwing after missing five weeks because of a strained tendon in his middle finger.
Plans call for Iwakuma to begin throwing a tennis ball on Friday and, barring setbacks, to start playing catch Monday with a baseball. It should then be just a matter of building endurance before he returns to the rotation.
“The finger is very stiff right now,” Iwakuma said through interpreter Antony Suzuki, “but the good thing is I’m pain-free. We’ll do a lot of range-of-motion (exercises) starting today for the next couple of days.”
“It did take five weeks, but I’m slowly and gradually going forward.”
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Iwakuma and club officials hedged when pressed for a target date for his return to the rotation, although non-club medical personnel suggest it’s likely to take roughly a month.
“I try not to think about that,” manager Lloyd McClendon said. “I just need to focus on who I have here…You get caught up in that, and you get disappointed. I just don’t even think about it.”
Iwakuma will continue to wear a protective splint on the finger during workouts over next few days as a precaution. Other than that, he will only wear it when sleeping.
“It’s been a very, very long five weeks,” he said. “I can tell you that much. The doctor said I can take the splint off and do more with that finger, actual rehab, and I’m looking forward to that.”
Injuries to Iwakuma and right-hander Taijuan Walker, the organization’s top prospect, forced the Mariners to patch together a rotation behind staff ace Felix Hernandez in preparation for the regular season.
Walker battled bursitis in his shoulder but has been pain-free since he resumed throwing after a one-week shutdown earlier in the month. But he, too, is expected to open the season on the disabled list.
McClendon chooses to see a silver lining.
“Right now, we have seven healthy options,” he said. “And then Iwakuma and Walker, and even (Brandon) Maurer. That gives us 10. Some guys have to step it up a little bit, but I like the way it’s shaping up.”
Maurer is back to playing catch after missing time because of a sore back.
It is Iwakuma’s absence, though, that continues to create the biggest hole. He is coming off a season in which he went 14-6 with a 2.66 ERA and finished third in the Cy Young Award balloting.
“I want to come back soon,” he said, “but I don't want to push it and get any more setbacks. It’s a long season, and I look forward to finishing strong. That’s all I have in mind right now.”
Iwakuma, who turns 33 on April 12, suffered the injury on Jan. 20 in an off-season workout in California. He caught his finger in a protective net, positioned behind him, when reaching to catch a high throw.
“My right (middle) finger got caught in the net, and I pulled it,” he said. “I knew it was injured. I didn’t think it was a major thing. I rested my finger for about a week and started playing catch again, long toss as always.
“I thought it was good, but the pain didn’t go away.”
The injury wasn’t diagnosed until Feb. 10, just prior to the start of official workouts for the club’s pitchers and catchers. Dr. Don Sheridan, a hand specialist in Phoenix, cited four-to-six weeks as the likely recovery period.
Iwakuma was optimistic of a speedy recovery prior to a Feb. 27 follow-up exam, but Sheridan advised three more weeks of no throwing while continuing to wear the protective splint.
That diagnosis effectively ruled out Iwakuma from being ready by the start of the season.