PEORIA, Ariz. — Hisashi Iwakuma is, as the calendar turns to March, already three bullpen workouts ahead of last season and the payoff, he believes, will come in September.
And just maybe, October.
Iwakuma said he ran out of steam last season in the closing weeks, when the Mariners needed him the most, and he blames his collapse on missing all of spring training because of an injured finger.
“I don’t think my finger affected me, performance-wise,” he said through interpreter Antony Suzuki. “It was just fatigue in general. Missing spring training, I think that affected me, especially at the end.”
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Iwakuma suffered a strained tendon in the middle finger of his pitching hand prior to reporting to camp. He was playing catch in front of a net, and caught his finger in the webbing when he jumped for a high throw.
While he didn’t make his first start until May 3, Iwakuma flashed his familiar form through 21 starts in going 12-6 with a 2.57 ERA. That ERA ranked fifth in the American League.
Then everything went south.
Iwakuma worked just 32 innings over his final seven starts — less than five innings per outing — and gave up 28 runs and 40 hits. That translates to a 7.88 ERA…more than three times higher than his previous work.
That fat 7.88 was also the worst mark among AL pitchers who worked at least 15 innings over that span (Aug. 24 through the end of the season).
Wondering how fatigue did all that? When Iwakuma pitched 40-plus fewer innings than the year before?
“Building up and getting your arm prepared for a six-month season,” manager Lloyd McClendon said, “it’s very important to have (spring training).
“He just didn’t have those reps. He jumped right into the fire. That awfully hard to do. It’s very important to get him out here and get his legs under him.”
In contrast, Iwakuma surged to the finish in 2013 by going 4-0 with a 1.62 ERA in his final eight starts, which covered 55 2/3 innings — roughly seven innings per outing.
“He looks a lot stronger this spring,” McClendon said, “and I look for him to bounce back. When I say bounce back, this guy had a phenomenal year last year. Sometimes we forget just how good he really is.”
Iwakuma is 38-20 with a 3.07 ERA in three years since joining the Mariners after 11 seasons in Japan. (His career was 2.80 ERA prior to those last seven starts.)
But OK…3.07. Know how many AL pitchers have a lower ERA than 3.07 while pitching at least 400 innings over the last three seasons?
Teammate Felix Hernandez (2.73), Chicago’s Chris Sale (2.79) and Detroit’s David Price (3.05).
Pretty good company.
This projects as a key season for Iwakuma, who turns 34 in April. He is eligible for free agency next winter and is already on record as saying he hopes to continue his career on this side of the Pacific.
“I’m very excited (about this season),” he said. “It’s a different year compared to where I was at last year. I’m very motivated, and I’m looking forward to the season. I’m looking forward to a good spring training.”
That two, he contends, go together.