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This all-Japanese mound duel between Hisashi Iwakuma and Yu Darvish certainly lived up to its billing.
And the Mariners came out on the long end of a 3-1 score largely because while Darvish blinked in the first inning, Iwakuma kept it going from start to an earlier-than-expected exit in the seventh because of a blood blister.
It turns out, that split-fingered fastball he’d confounded the Texas Rangers with all night long was also perplexing to his finger and causing another blood blister flare-up. Iwakuma said, through interpreter Antony Suzuki, that the split-fingered pitch causes the most strain on the finger because of the rotation it needs to generate in the baseball.
“That was something that I had to think about, being on the mound,” he said. “But I’ll be ready after five days of rest. I should be ready by my next start.”
Iwakuma had just used the splitter to strike out Nelson Cruz for the second out of the seventh when he looked down at his hand. The Mariners immediately pulled him after 90 pitches.
“That has more stress than any other pitch,” he said.
Today was Iwakuma’s 32nd birthday and getting to face Darvish — who he’d opposed numerous times previously in Japan — was a treat. Iwakuma said he was aware of the extra attention being paid to this game back in his home country, as well as the intense focus now on the Mariners locally as they stumble through a rough start to their season.
“This was a big game, obviously because we were on a losing streak and I wanted to stop that streak,’’ Iwakuma said. “And behind all that, we got to face Darvish, too. So, it was very exciting. And it was a very big win for us.’’
Mariners manager Eric Wedge said Iwakuma used all of his pitches effectively and was outstanding against a potent Rangers lineup. But Wedge wasn’t taking any chances once he saw Iwakuma having another blister flare-up.
“It’s still an issue,” Wedge said. “It’s one of the reasons we had to get him out of there. Like I’ve talked to you about before, you don’t want to leave him in there too long and then he goes over the edge for us. So, that was it for him.”
Another thing still an issue for the Mariners remains the offense and a lack of timely hits. They had a couple from Raul Ibanez and Kyle Seager in the first inning, but that was it. Darvish switched his game around after the first inning and threw a ton of additional breaking balls to get through his final five frames without allowing another hit. Then, when the Mariners got to the bullpen in the seventh, Jason Bay grounded into a double play with the bases loaded and one out.
“We created some opportunities there later, but just didn’t take advantage,” Wedge said. “We did a real good job early…but you obviously want to tack on.”
In other words, this one was pretty much all Iwakuma.
Mariners catcher Kelly Shoppach said Iwakuma’s pitches were all working so well that he couldn’t even find a spot to use his curveball in. Shoppach said the Rangers were all coming to the plate commenting on how well Iwakuma was throwing.
I asked Shoppach whether he could tell the splitter was causing Iwakuma difficulty as the game wore on. The veteran catcher replied that he honestly could not, because the pitches were so effective.
“It’s only a few miles an hour off his fastball,” Shoppach said. “It doesn’t read like a split-finger, or changeup. It looks like a fastball, so guys that have those, there’s usually a pretty good chance you’re going to strike guys out with it because it looks so much like his fastball.”
The Mariners will need plenty more mound performances where this one came from until they at least get Morse back or some more young bats deliver like Seager did tonight. The Mariners are 5-7 and the schedule doesn’t get any easier from here.
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