NEW YORK — However much anticipated Sunday’s pitching match-up might be in Japan, Mariners right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma is trying his best to minimize any emotional attachment to facing former teammate Masahiro Tanaka.
"I look at it as another game," Iwakuma insisted. "I’m not here in the majors to face Tanaka. He’s just another pitcher. I know that we have a relationship, but I don’t want to go deep in the emotion of thinking about it."
This is the first match-up between Iwakuma and Tanaka, who were teammates from 2007-11 with the Rakuten Eagles in Japan’s Pacific League. Iwakuma came to the Mariners in 2012, while Tanaka signed two years later with the Yankees.
While the two were a combined 120-62 over their five years together, the Eagles managed just one winning season. During that time, Iwakuma said the two never talked about pitching in the big leagues.
"We’d always been on the same side as teammates," he said, "and it was great to have someone like him in the same rotation. That’s all we talked about."
Iwakuma is more than seven years older than Tanaka, and has often been characterized as the big brother in their relationship, but he dismisses any suggestion that he had an impact on Tanaka’s career.
"He’s always been a great pitcher with talent," Iwakuma said. "So he is what he is, and he was a very special pitcher back in Japan. That’s what he is today as well."
These days, the two keep in touch — but only on an occasional basis.
"We text each other here and there," Iwakuma said. "When we see each other, we meet and greet. That’s about it. But I can say that we played on the same team in Japan for several years, and we know each other very well."
And even as Iwakuma seeks to treat the game as nothing special, he recognizes that "it’s big news" in Japan.
"We played with each other for so long," he said, "and a lot of the fans back in Japan, the whole nation has rooted for us (in the big leagues). Now, it’s myself vs. Tanaka. It’s a different story.
"I’m sure all of the fans will enjoy that, and I hope to contribute to making the fans very happy."
The Mariners chose to let the Yankees move the potential run into scoring position without a challenge in the ninth inning.
"We’re (trying) to win the game," manager Scott Servais said. "We had our closer out there. We feel good about our chances. It’s where we’re at in the game. We have the confidence in our closer to get the final out there.
"He came through and got it done."
True enough. Steve Cishek closed out a 3-2 victory by stranding runners at second and third when Chase Headley grounded out to second.
Cishek retired the first two batters in the inning before Carlos Beltran flicked a single to left. Pinch-runner Aaron Hicks raced to third when Starling Castro lined a single into the right-center gap.
Right fielder Seth Smith cut the ball off, which prevented Hicks from scoring and forced Castro to hold at first. But Castro stole second without a challenge from the Mariners with Headley at the plate.
That meant a single was now likely to produce two runs and a New York victory.
"I was just worried about getting that last out," Cishek said. "I know Headley is a pretty good hitter. I wasn’t even worried about Castro on first base. I knew he was going to go to second. Whatever. I’m just trying to put Headley away."
Slumping third baseman Kyle Seager got a day on the bench Saturday when Servais opted to start switch-hitting utilityman Luis Sardinas against Yankees left-hander CC Sabathia.
"Just give him a day," Servais said. "Get Sardinas in there. I’m trying to see if we can start Sardinas at every position. It gives Kyle a little breather."
The comment about Sardinas came accompanied by a laugh, but third is the fourth different position that he’s played in the club’s first 11 games. The point Saturday, though, was to give Seager a chance to regroup.
"Sit back and look at the game from the bench," Servais said, "and realize it’s not as hard as we sometimes make it out to be. You just have a different perspective on the game…He’s our guy. There’s no doubt there. It’s just a day off."
Seager is mired in a 2-for-27 slump over his last seven games and has hit into two double plays in each of his last two games. His average is down to .132 with one homer and four RBIs in 45 plate appearances.
"I don’t feel as bad as the numbers are," he said. "When it’s early in the season, this stuff gets amplified. Obviously, I’d like to be doing better. I’ve had a lot of opportunities where I haven’t gotten guys in.
"I’ve had the opportunities to definitely have better at-bats. But it will be all right."
LEE OVER LIND
"I like where Dae-Ho Lee is at," Servais said, "and I think it’s a good matchup for Dae-Ho Lee. No track record there, but we’ll stick with that for right now. But I did see the numbers as well."
Lind is 7-for-15 in his career against Sabathia, including six hits in his last nine at-bats.
Double-A Jackson outfielder Guillermo Heredia, a Cuban defector signed on March 1, went 2-for-3 with a double Friday in a 6-3 victory at Chattanooga (Twins).
Heredia, 25, has hits in all eight of the Generals’ games and is batting .448 (13-for-29). He has a .455 on-base percentage and a .621 slugging percentage with two doubles, one homer and nine RBIs.
It was 14 years ago Sunday — April 17, 2002 — that the Mariners completed a 10-0 road trip by winning 7-4 at Oakland. John Olerud’s two-run homer in the first inning against Athletics right-hander Tim Hudson set the tone.
That remains the best road trip in franchise history, and the 10-game run is the second-best winning streak in franchise history. They won 15 in a row in 2001 from May 23 to June 8.
The Mariners conclude their three-game weekend at Yankee Stadium with another 10:05 a.m. Pacific time game Sunday that offers that marquee match-up of former Japanese right-handed teammates.
Hisashi Iwakuma (0-1 with a 4.09 ERA) will face New York’s Masahiro Tanaka (0-0, 3.38). The game can be seen on Root Sports Northwest and heard on 710 ESPN.
The Mariners then have another open date before starting a three-game series at Cleveland.
Bob Dutton: @TNT_Mariners