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June 4, 2014 at 1:31 PM

Mariners 2, Braves 0 — Iwakuma leads Seattle to its fifth straight victory

After a brief lull of looking almost like an average major league pitcher, Hisashi Iwakuma returned to back into a strike-throwing, out-getting machine  in the muggy heat of Turner Field on Wednesday.

Iwakuma tossed seven shutout innings, giving up six hits and striking out seven batters, and his teammates scratched across just enough run support to eke out a 2-0 win to complete a two-game sweep of the Atlanta Braves at Turner Field.

It was the fifth-straight win for Seattle, which improved to 31-28 on the season.The last time the Mariners were three games over .500 came on April 11 when they were 6-3. The five-game win streak ties a season high.

“Nothing’s changed,” manager Lloyd McClendon said of his team’s recent play. “I like my team. I like the way they go about their business. They are very gritty. They prepare very well. I’m very pleased with that. We’ve got our warts. We’ve got our challenges. But we do okay.”

Iwakuma (4-2) did better than okay in a bounce back performance. He took losses in his last two starts, giving up a combined nine runs in 13 innings pitched. There would be no runs scored off of him in this start.

“I thought he threw the ball really well,” catcher Mike Zunino said. “He kept everything in the strike zone, he worked ahead and he was down in the strike zone and when he is down in the zone that’s when he’s the most effective.”

Jason Heyward reached third base in the first inning and Chris Johnson reached second base in the second inning. But that was it. Iwakuma retired 12 in a row at one point.

“He did a pretty nice job,” McClendon said. “He wasn’t as sharp as normal. He got up away with some pitches today that he normally doesn’t leave up the in zone.”

One of the reasons he was able to do that was increased velocity. His fastball was up a few ticks at 91-92 mph, similar to last season.  It had been down around 88-89 in past starts.

Because he missed all of spring training with a strained tendon in his finger, Iwakuma is still trying to build arm strength and innings. The increased velocity is a sign that his strength is returning to normal.  He admitted to feeling fatigued in his previous start in Seattle. But he felt strong on Wednesday.

“I think my arm is starting to get better and better,” Iwakuma said through translator Antony Suzuki. “I think the heat did help. But this is my seventh start and I’m starting feel better and better. I was able to pitch low in the zone and it had more life and I was able to take advantage of it.”

From Baseball by Brooks …

Screen Shot 2014-06-04 at 4.30.41 PM

Iwakuma needed to be good because the Mariners didn’t do much against Braves starter Mike Minor, who struck out 10 batters in seven innings pitched. Seattle got its only run off him in the fourth inning. Robinson Cano and Stefen Romero started with back-to-back singles. With two outs, Cole Gillespie dumped a single into left field to score Cano from second.

“I’m just getting a little more opportunity now and I’m starting to get into a rhythm,” said Gillespie, who had two hits on the day and has five hits in his last 10 at-bats. “I’m not trying to do too much at the plate. I know what I’m capable of doing. And I’m happy to contribute today to a win.”

During this run of wins, the Mariners are getting key contributions from players like Gillespie, Romero, Endy Chavez and Willie Bloomquist, particularly when Cano missed four games with a hand contusion.

“Listen, we are not an ideal powerhouse so to speak,” McClendon said. “We have to use our entire roster to do the best we can. We manage. Our guys do a great job. Like I’ve said before, ‘we get our BB gun and we dodge their bullets and shoot them between the eyes.”

Seattle was able to pick up a big insurance run in the eighth inning. Romero, who was batting clean-up with Justin Smoak getting a day off, tripled to right-center off of reliever Luis Avilan. He was lifted for pinch runner James Jones, who scored on Kyle Seager’s ground ball single to right field.

“I was just looking for a fastball up in the zone somewhere,” Romero said. “I got it and drove it to right-center gap. Right out of the box I was thinking three.”

With Iwakuma and 96 pitches on a hot and muggy day, McClendon turned to his bullpen. Yoervis Medina worked a 1-2-3 eighth inning – that’s not a typo. Fernando Rodney worked a quiet 1-2-3 ninth for a second straight outing to notch his 16th save.

The Mariners will get their first off day since May 19 on Thursday in St. Petersburg, Fla., and then return to action on Friday with a four-game series against the Rays at Tropicana Field.

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