As he walked into the clubhouse, Hisashi Iwakuma gave himself a mental reminder not to get his hopes up about the whole birthday thing. Sure, he'd been on the team for over a year, and as the #2 starting pitcher he liked to think he was important, but he knew that he couldn't rationally expect his teammates to have planned something. For one thing, they were in the middle of a slump, which always killed clubhouse morale. For another thing, the life of the party - Michael Morse - was nursing a broken pinkie and had bigger things to worry about. For a third (and most discouraging) thing, he was still running into some issues with the language barrier. At least the year before he'd had two Japanese-fluent teammates. Offhand, he wondered if anyone in the room even knew that it was his birthday. Or how old he was.
Still, he couldn't help feeling a few extra thumps in his chest when he saw the unusually large Japanese media contingent on the field during warmups. For a single joyous hour he allowed himself to believe that they were there for him, to celebrate a great native son pitching on the anniversary of his birth. He'd almost worked up the temerity to thank one of them for remembering when they all hurried over to the visitor's bullpen. Oh, he thought. Darvish.
It wasn't just the media. For three solid hours before the game, all throughout the clubhouse, it was Darvish this and Darvish that. A few of the new players - Bay and Chavez, to be specific - came over to grill him on his opponent's offspeed pitches. Wedge called him to the office for a chat about Darvish's pace and what the team could do to disrupt it. At one point he could've sworn he'd caught Blake Beavan drooling while watching Darvish's pregame pen session.
Half an hour before game time, he decided he just couldn't take it any more. He made his excuses to Bay, whose extreme interest in Darvish was simultaneously impressive and irritating, and headed back to the bathroom. He gave his hands a quick once-over, making sure not to bump the blister, and started to towel them off. Someone in the clubhouse turned a speaker set up high and started blasting atrocious house music.
He looked up, slowly, into the mirror. Thirty-two. Was that an important age? Didn't someone tell him that was an important age? He thought he looked a little different, anyways. More mature, somehow. Less baby-faced. Maybe it was the sideburns.
The bathroom door opened. The new lefty - Lasomethingorother - took a single step in before he saw Iwakuma and visibly paled. "Oh. I, uh, sorry. Didn't mean to disturb, uh, your, um, pregame ritual. If this is that and not just you washing your hands, or something. I guess." Hisashi held up a hand, signaling that it wasn't a big deal, and gently shook his head. He tried to exit the bathroom... but the new guy was in the way. They did an awkward little penguin dance in the door frame before finally figuring out enough to squeak past each other.
And there was Shoppach, with Suzuki, calling him over to talk about pitch selection. Welp.
There was still the faintest bit of fleeting hope left as he walked out to the mound in the first inning, but it vanished the instant the umpire said "play ball!". Even Mune wouldn't have tried to surprise him with happy birthday wishes during a game. He missed Mune. So he turned his thoughts to pitching, listening mostly to Shoppach and trying to work off his fastball. It was an unusual pitch mix tonight, featuring none of his typical offspeed pitches, but that was fine. Probably better for the finger, anyways.
By the third inning he realized he was rolling. I should have a birthday every start, he thought. His team had taken off a little pressure with some early offense, and his fastball command was working better than it had for ages. The shuuto was in fine form, too, and as a result nine batters had come up to the plate and nine batters had gone right back down to the visitors' dugout. With Darvish's command in question, the game was in hand. The only question was whether or not he could put together a no-hitter. That'd be a good present.
Alas, it was not to be. He knew as soon as he felt it come out of his hand. Stupid blister. Sure enough, Ian Kinsler detonated the pitch, knocking it just over the fence. Shoppach looked a little worried. At least I can stop thinking about my birthday, Hisashi thought.
But he didn't. The rest of the game went off without a hitch, the Rangers folding easily enough that he still had plenty of time to think. The hand was getting sore, though. In the seventh, Wedge noticed the blister and mercifully removed him. His mind now officially off the game, he allowed his thoughts to wonder a little bit. Maybe this is their present: a win. That'd be a good present, right?
They won the game, but something inside of him knew that they hadn't been thinking about him when they did it. Sure, there was the postgame butt-slapping and shoulder-patting, and he received several congratulations on a job well done. Ibanez came over to give him a high five, and he returned it even though the outfielder's bad defense had likely cost a run. He answered a few media questions, said his good-byes, packed up his stuff and headed for home.
The kids were long asleep by the time he got there, but there was a note on top of the table anyways. We love you, dad. Happy birthday! Good job beating Yu Darvish!
For the first time since he'd shown up at the ballpark that morning, Hisashi Iwakuma allowed himself a smile. Better than Darvish. He had been, hadn't he?
This was going to be a good year.
- This story is entirely fictitious, just in case you were wondering.
- The big news of the game, other than Iwakuma's dominant performance, was Ackley. More specifically, it was Ackley's swing, which appears to have changed again. The long setup disappeared over the course of the night, and by the time he drove a ball deep to left field towards the end of the game he was practically back at the old swing. This is almost certainly why Wedge gave Ackley the day off yesterday. Let this be a cautionary tale! Don't complain too vociferously about lineups! You may not have all of the important information!
- We finally got confirmation of the Iwakuma blister thing. He came out after throwing a splitter and then immediately checking it. He says he'll be good to go for his next start, but it wouldn't shock me if he doesn't go 100 pitches again any time soon. I hope you like the bullpen!
- Justin Smoak sent a hard line drive to center field that was just barely not a double. His BABIP to batted ball discrepancy is truly remarkable, again. Smoak's LD% is the same as his BABIP. Siiiiigh.
- It is 2013, and the Mariners started an outfield of Endy Chavez, Jason Bay, and Raul Ibanez. And won, against the Texas Rangers, with the Rangers' ace on the mound. That outfield was inspiring "bet money on the Rangers" tweets before the game started, but once things got underway it actually didn't do too badly for itself. You go, outfielders! Live up to my heinously low expectations for you!
Iwakuma was developing a blood blister over the previous blister during the game, that's why Wedge took him out in the seventh.— Ryan Divish (@RyanDivish) April 13, 2013
Tomorrow the Mariners play the Rangers again. Notably, Texas'll get another crack at the pitcher who eliminated them from last year's play-in game. Tune in to watch! The Mariners might win!