Felix Hernandez has been a non-factor for the Mariners the past month or so, but Hisashi Iwakuma has helped pick up the missing ace slack for his team. Tonight was arguably the finest outing all season by Iwakuma, who matched his 2013 high of eight innings in shutting down the Detroit Tigers n four hits.
The final score was 8-0, but it was actually a 3-0 game heading into the eighth before the Mariners blitzed Phil Coke and Al Abuquerque for four runs. Franklin Gutierrez then topped it off with a ninth-inning solo homer.
Justin Smoak also homered, drove in a run with a single and scored on two rather-amusing plays. The first one was a second inning jaunt from first to home on the first of two Michael Saunders doubles. Then came the eighth when he and Saunders both scored on the same wild pitch.
Needless to say, Smoak’s teammates were all over him about his baserunning. He’s got a sore quad and appeared to be going at quite the leisurely, piano-on-his-back pace on the second-inning double, in which he barely made it home in time.
“For some reason, I just knew it, I had to go,’’ Smoak said of being waved all the way around. “It was just, take it nice and easy and hopefully get in there.’’
But Iwakuma had to be at the top of his game. He escaped bases-loaded jams in the first and fourth innings and kept his pitch count at an economical 105. Instead of wearing down as the season progresses, he actually looks to have gotten stronger.
So much so that the Mariners will give him yet another start, even after he reached 211 2/3 innings for the season. That’s the second highest innings total in the AL, just two behind James Shields of the Royals. Remember, the Mariners initially discussed an innings limit of 210 on the season for Iwakuma. But manger Eric Wedge said the way Iwakuma is throwing has him convinced the pitcher can keep on going.
Iwakuma struck out six tonight, including two whiffs of Miguel Cabrera.
“You don’t see Miggy swing the way he swung tonight against a pitcher very often,’’ Wedge said of Cabrera’s strikeouts. “I thought Kuma did a great job against the middle of their order. I thought he did a nice job of controlling the baseball game. When he was ahead, he finished off hitters and when he was behind, he came back and he got back in the count.’’
Wedge had spoken pregame about how the team’s careful management of Iwakuma’s pitch counts and innings as the season progressed now appears to have left him in good shape. Iwakuma says he feels as strong as he has all season and is pleased to be getting the added shot to compete.
“We have a few more games to play, so just having that opportunity is always a good thing for me – going out there and competing,’’ Iwakuma said, through interpreter Antony Suzuki.
And really, this team, having won just two of its last 10 games, needs any ace-like outings it can get.
Iwakuma hadn’t won in nearly a month, his team struggling to score when he’s out there. But he’s also held opponents to just three earned runs his last four starts — covering a span of 25 2/3 innings. He’s also got a 25-inning scoreless streak going on the road.
That’s the stuff teams expect from an ace.
Iwakuma improved to 13-6 with a 2.76 earned run average and the innings totals to show that he’s carrying the heavy load as well.
If Hernandez can return next year to the dominant pitcher he’s been previously over a full season, the Mariners will have a leg up on at least the 1-2 rotation punch so many other clubs are seeking. Then, they can tackle their other issues.