Mariners' Safeco offense returns, but Iwakuma spins a gem in win over Royals

Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

The Kansas City Royals are not a good baseball team. They're 16-18 and have a run differential of -5, currently sitting a full six games back in their division. Now, I know what you're thinking: they're not that bad. And that's right.

The Kansas City Royals are not a good baseball team—they're almost certainly not going to win this division, they don't have any superstars (Shields, I guess?) and they'll likely have to battle to even stay in the thick of the wild cart hunt—but they're not a bad team either. They won 86 games last year and were playing for a playoff spot into the season's last couple weeks, with a roster that's largely the same as this year.

And the Mariners flat outplayed them. The M's' offense was dreadful. They managed just two hits in a game that flew by, but it wasn't a lucky win. They still outplayed a not-terrible team, because in all likelihood, they're better than them. This is what it's like to climb the ladder back to respectability.

No, as mentioned, tonight was not a lucky win. Because the Mariners had Hisashi Iwakuma going.

The dirty secret with Iwakuma, something a lot of people either don't know or choose to suppress, is that he's never really had two good years back-to-back, without injury. I'd been worried this injury to his finger could be crushing, because of its potential impact on his signature pitch. Well, I'm not worrying anymore.

I tend to put too much stock in how pitchers look in the first inning, but woo, Iwakuma looked good right from the start. He did allow a single there in the first, to Eric Hosmer, but it was clear early on the splitter was working. It was clear throughout. Iwakuma was spinning those splitters up there with the ease of a 60-year-old bullpen coach throwing batting practice, and the Royals kept swinging right over the top of it.

In the eighth, Danny Valencia led off and quickly went down 0-2 on a fastball and a slider. Iwakuma threw an 0-2 slider up there that Valencia was badly fooled on, and he went around on a check swing. But in appealing to the first-base ump, it was ruled that he had not gone around. Afterwards, I was in the process of typing "Not check swing. Whatever, strike this guy out twice" in the inning-by-inning notes I keep on my phone when I'm recapping a game I'm at, and before I could even finish the sentence, Iwakuma had already fanned him on a splitter in the dirt.

I think we've all underestimated just how big of a deal it is to have Hisashi Iwakuma back. I don't know, I do feel bad speaking for everyone. But though we've all been saying "if we can just _____ until the pitching gets back," not much talk has been made of just how good that pitching is—and can be going forward.

Hisashi Iwakuma was third place in the Cy Young voting last year. For a lot of teams, including some decent teams, Hisashi Iwakuma would be the ace. Here, put it this way, maybe this helps frame it. We all love Felix Hernandez. He's just the best, one of the most talented pitchers in the game, certainly. And a lot of people who watch a lot of baseball thought Iwakuma was better than Felix Hernandez last year. Over the course of the whole year. Than Felix!

Fans around these parts have been quick to search out reasons for regression, even with the the Mariners performing well. And the biggest reason for regression, of course, has been the return of some extremely talented arms in Hisashi Iwakuma, James Paxton and Taijuan Walker. But the counter to that has been "Well, the pitching has actually been pretty good so far, so you shouldn't expect too many more extra wins on account of that."

Well, that's not a bad point, but tonight was a big fat example of why it always helps to have more talented starting pitchers. Sometimes, the Mariners' offense is going to be the Mariners offense, and great starting pitching can win games when that's the case. For a split second I almost typed "...can win games the Mariners don't deserve to win," but that's just not what happened. Iwakuma went out and won this game. He deserved it.

But yeah, this offense. That's not going to work. After tonight's performance, the Mariners are down to a heinous .203/.269/.336 at home on the year. Just, no. The M's have Brandon Maurer and Chris Young going the next two days. If they want to win this four-game set, of which Roenis Elias starts the finale, they have to get the home offense going. Now, tonight was cold, and there were some hard-hit outs, but I'm over this thing where not-great pitching keeps this offense nearly silent.

Bullets? Oh for sure.

  • I have a lot of pet peeves. Really, a lot. Sometimes it's just me being a bit of a curmudgeon. Other times, I'm probably a jerk. But anyway, of all the things I absolutely cannot stand, people honking their car horns is near the very top of the list. It's so damn obnoxious. Rarely does it ever accomplish anything and nearly every time I see and hear people doing it, it's with next to no understanding of the context for what's causing them to be upset.

    The other day, on my lunch break, I was jogging up the left side of First Avenue in downtown, going towards Pike Place Market from my office in Pioneer Square. A driver who was looking to turn right on red from the left saw me, waited, and planned to let me pass in front—as he should. Just as I was stepping into the street, the car behind that car just laid on its horn, trying to get this car letting me go to make its turn. I ran in front, looked back once this second car saw me, and gave a sarcastic "get a clue" wave. Seriously, everyone with the horns, just calm down and give it a moment. Jesus.

    And that's where I am with regards to people losing their minds with regards to Lloyd McClendon's decisions on the bullpen, particularly decisions involving Fernando Rodney. I know it's not everyone, but some people were so upset—before and after the game—about McClendon pulling Iwakuma in favor of Fernando Rodney. Iwakuma was great, yes, and he was just toying with the Royals, but he was still at 93 pitches in his second start coming off injury. And Rodney, for all his flaws, is still a damn good closer. 

    This is a real thing that a real person said:
    Get it together, people.

  • When the Mariners scored their one and only run in the bottom of the third, it was preceded by a Danny Duffy intentional walk of Robinson Cano, when Mike Zunino was sitting on third with two outs. It didn't seem like a good idea at the time, and it wasn't a good idea. Cano has been scuffling a little bit, and Hart mashes lefties.

    It was funny—nay—it was refreshing to have supreme confidence that Hart would come through there. It wasn't just "Oh hey, it's not Cano but this isn't so bad." You could see this coming from a mile away. I had a vision in my head of Corey Hart ripping one of those screaming line drives up the middle for a 1-0 lead (and hopes for a three-run jack), and sure enough, Duffy hangs a breaking ball right over the plate, it curls right into the barrel of Hart's bat, and it's 1-0 Mariners.

  • Speaking, momentarily, of Mike Zunino—this guy might mess around and have a four-win season. I know we should be tempered with expectations with regards to young guys, but how about this—in an article the other day on Baseball Prospectus, there existed this sentence: "Mike Zunino leads all catchers with 5.1 framing runs added." This is a new stat, and add a lot or a little salt if you wish, but by that metric Zunino is on pace for about three wins on pitch framing alone.

    Oh, and the reason for this bullet: Mike Zunino had another extra base hit tonight with the double that led to the run. His approach is terrible for sure, and it's likely all guesswork, but when he guesses right (and it's happening nearly enough), it sure does work well.

  • Now, speaking about young guys and tempered expectations, this Brad Miller character. Ah, Brad Miller. Every time he comes up you hope that one hit, maybe even an extra-base hit, turns this whole thing around. At least that's what I (still) was hoping when Miller stepped in tonight in the second. First pitch: swings right through a fastball at the top of the zone. Second pitch: pop foul on a fastball down the middle. Third pitch: real bad defensive swing on a fastball on the outer half. Ugly.

    Still, Miller's looked a little better as of late. He did have a really hard-hit line-out tonight with a man on second in the seventh. More quantified, Jason Churchill provides this tweet:
    Hope? Maybe?

  • The Mariners' game ops crew added a bear roar sound effect for every Iwakuma strikeout, and now flash "KUMA=[picture of bear face]" on the big left field board after such occasions. They do a good job.

Tomorrow, the Mariners have Brandon Maurer going. He'll face off against old friend Jason Vargas. I hope Corey Hart Michael Morses him.

Go M's.

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