A year ago, Hisashi Iwakuma was feeling a little lost in the desert and a bit overwhelmed.
Yes, he was 30 years old and had been playing baseball professionally since 1999. But this was his first spring training in Major League Baseball. It was head-spinning. Where was he was supposed to go? How did they expect drills to be performed?
He was hesitant and unsure. And none of his fellow pitchers spoke a sentence of Japanese.
This year, Iwakuma is all smiles. He interacts with teammates. He moves with confidence in the clubhouse and on the field. He’s no longer a rookie; he’s an established member of the team with a spot in the 2013 starting rotation.
“I’m having fun right now,” Iwakuma said Thursday through translator Antony Suzuki. “After one year under my belt, I’m a lot more relaxed. I know how the day is going to go. It’s much easier.”
Mariners manager Eric Wedge has taken notice.
“It’s a tremendous difference,” Wedge said. “He came in a different situation last year, too. He wasn’t anywhere near as strong as needed to be since he was still coming off the injuries.”
Indeed, Iwakuma battled shoulder issues in the 2011 season with the Rakuten Golden Eagles in Japanese professional baseball. When he reported to spring training, he was too far behind to be a legitimate contender for the rotation.
“It was evident early on he was going to need to strengthen some things up and tighten some things up,” Wedge said
Iwakuma began the season in the bullpen. After some successful long relief, he pitched his way into the rotation when Hector Noesi pitched his way out of it.
Once Iwakuma got into the rotation, he stayed there.
He went 8-4 with a 2.65 ERA in 16 starts. It set a club record for lowest earned run average by a rookie starter, breaking the 2.67 ERA Felix Hernandez had in 2005. He went 6-2 with a 1.83 ERA his last nine starts.
More surprising were the strikeouts. Iwakuma struck out 101 batters in 125 innings. He struck out 13 Toronto Blue Jays in eight innings on July 30.
“I’d be lying to if you if (I said) I expected that, but the stuff was real,” Wedge said.
Iwakuma doesn’t expect to supplant Hernandez.
“I was not surprised,” he said. “But the way I pitch, it isn’t to strike guys out. I like to have guys make contact and get them out early in counts. That’s my game. Strikeouts are just something that comes with it.”
Iwakuma’s late-season performance earned him a two-year, $14 million contract and a rotation spot. It’s a defined role that makes things easier this season.
“I look forward to pitching for the whole season and staying healthy,” Iwakuma said. “It’s not something that I think about, but it does give me some comfort knowing I will be in the starting rotation.”
It helps that Iwakuma is 100 percent healthy. He was able to do his regular offseason workout, and prepare for the rigors of a 162-game season.
“I feel physically much better than I was at this time last year,” Iwakuma said. “I worked very hard in the offseason. I look forward to getting stronger from here on until the end of the season.”
It shows in early workouts.
“If you look at him now, he’s even stronger now than he was at the end of the last year,” Wedge said. “He’s really worked hard to come in here ready to start. You have to really be built up to be a starter in the big leagues. He looks like he’s prepared for that physically in the offseason.”
Part of that preparation won’t include the World Baseball Classic. Iwakuma, Japan’s No. 2 starter in 2009, decided not to help his nation defend its WBC title.
“It’s tough to say no in a situation like this,” he said. “You are always honored to be part of Team Japan and you have a lot of pride in that. But at the same time, I thought it was important to give an opportunity to the kids that are younger than me. … I’m looking forward to seeing how they play.”