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Hisashi Iwakuma's Brilliance To Be Remembered By Some

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Hisashi Iwakuma pitching in not this game
Hisashi Iwakuma pitching in not this game

Whether you consider Hisashi Iwakuma a legitimate major-league rookie or not, tonight he set the Mariners' all-time rookie record for strikeouts in a game, with 13. He did that in eight innings against the team that came in leading the American League in runs scored. Iwakuma's 13th strikeout came with one out in the top of the eighth, when he froze Brett Lawrie with an 0-and-2 fastball on the outer edge. It was Lawrie's fourth strikeout against Iwakuma in four at-bats. Iwakuma subsequently retired Edwin Encarnacion on a fly out, and then he walked to the dugout, all smiles. Iwakuma had thrown an absolute gem against a talented lineup, albeit a talented lineup missing Jose Bautista, and a few minutes later, Iwakuma and the Mariners were celebrating a 4-1 win.

That's when we all found out that the Mariners had traded Brandon League to the Dodgers for two prospects. That's also when we all found out that the Mariners had traded Steve Delabar to the Blue Jays for Eric Thames. The announcements were made on Twitter at just about the same time. My email press releases arrived two minutes apart. 26 minutes after the second trade press release, I got an email with game notes and a box score. By that point, I'd long since stopped thinking about the game. By that point, I assume everyone had long since stopped thinking about the game, except for those people who watched the game and then immediately went away or fell asleep. This is the trade deadline, and what people care about are trades. People don't care so much about the games played by a team in last place.

Which made this a somewhat unfortunate night for Iwakuma to do what he did. Not that it really matters to Iwakuma how much we remember his effort, but this went from being Hisashi Iwakuma's night to being the front office's night in the time it takes Josh Beckett to throw three pitches. To Hisashi Iwakuma and his family, this is still Hisashi Iwakuma's night. But in the greater dialogue, he deserves more attention than he's going to get.

There's a whole tear-jerker of a story here, as Iwakuma was literally just in Japan to be with his ill father. Iwakuma pitched decently against the Yankees, he went home, he came back, and he dominated the Blue Jays. It could be woven into a story of love, of honor, of dedication and of perseverance. Was Iwakuma's father watching? Was Iwakuma thinking of his father the while time he was on the mound? Iwakuma didn't just turn in a dominant start - he turned in one of the more dominant starts by anybody all season.

But there's more, although the rest isn't quite so sentimental. Remember that, a year before the Mariners got Iwakuma, Oakland won the rights to negotiate with him through the posting process. Oakland reportedly offered a four-year contract worth around $15 million, and Iwakuma turned it down and stayed in Japan. He injured his shoulder and signed with the Mariners for less money and one year. Iwakuma was hoping to rebuild some value before entering the market once more.

He was miserable in spring training and in the early part of the season he was barely ever used. Eric Wedge clearly didn't trust him. Iwakuma made just his third appearance in the Mariners' 31st game on May 7, and after that game Iwakuma said "I really feel like I'm a part of the team now." He wouldn't pitch again until May 16. He wouldn't pitch again until May 30.

Slowly, Iwakuma worked his way into Wedge's consciousness. He was inserted into the rotation at the beginning of July and wasn't very good. He struggled against the Orioles. He struggled against the Rangers. He wasn't throwing strikes, and he wasn't hard to hit.

Then Iwakuma pitched a hell of a game against the Rays. Then he survived against the Yankees. Then he went home, came back, and dominated the Blue Jays. Iwakuma faced 31 batters, and he struck 13 of them out. Rajai Davis pulled the sixth pitch over the fence, but after that Iwakuma was practically untouchable, until Eric Wedge told him he was finished at 109 pitches. Iwakuma couldn't have been better, and for the first time he's the story. He's not the story, because the trades are the story, but Iwakuma is the story as far as the game is concerned.

Hisashi Iwakuma wanted to pitch in the major leagues. He didn't pitch in the majors with Oakland, and for a while he hardly pitched in the majors with Seattle. He wasn't given an opportunity to showcase himself. At last, Iwakuma is getting a chance, and he might as well be fighting for a career. This start didn't make the difference between Iwakuma getting a contract after the season and Iwakuma going back home, but we're seeing Iwakuma find his legs, and we're seeing him establish himself as a guy who can get big-league hitters out. For the longest time, it felt like Hisashi Iwakuma's North American career was going nowhere. It looks like he's headed somewhere.

Would the Mariners be open to re-signing Iwakuma? Would Iwakuma be open to re-signing with the Mariners? That's not something we need to think about just yet. There's plenty of baseball left to go, and there's plenty of time left to let pass. I don't know what lies ahead for Iwakuma in 2013, but I feel a lot more confident saying he'll be in the major leagues than I did last month. Iwakuma is coming on strong in a rotation that could use his contributions.

Iwakuma's performance this evening was basically art. It feels vaguely racist to want to compare him to Hiroki Kuroda, but in terms of pitching style, Iwakuma tonight was Kuroda at his best. Iwakuma doesn't have an eye-popping fastball at 89-92 miles per hour, but tonight he was controlling it, and he was mixing up his pitches such that there weren't any predictable, identifiable sequences. He threw 109 pitches. If you consider fastballs to be straight, then 59 of Iwakuma's pitches weren't straight. All of his offspeed pitches were diving. Most of his pitches were down. There were eight whiffs at what PITCHf/x calls a changeup, six at what PITCHf/x calls a slider, and two at the curveball and fastball apiece. 18 missed swings out of 58 swings. Felix has turned in two starts this year with more than 18 missed swings. Felix has turned in 22 starts this year.

As we've talked about before, this was proof of concept that Iwakuma can be a swing-and-miss starting pitcher. Carlos Peguero hitting a 500-foot home run would be proof that Peguero is capable of a 500-foot home run. Most hitters would not be capable of that. Many pitchers would not be capable of 18 missed swings in one start, and what's implied is that Iwakuma has real strikeout potential. Not to the degree that he could do something like this every other time out, but to the degree that he could strike out enough. Enough to be effective in the American League.

I just got interrupted for a while and completely lost my train of thought, which is just as well since I don't know why I'm spending so much time writing about this game. All you guys want to read about is trading. I guess I should move to wrap this up. Ricky Romero is a puzzling pitcher - I've long thought of him as being underrated, and as being a guy capable of throwing a no-hitter every time he's on the mound. What Romero has been in 2012 is an absolute disaster, and he wasn't very good again today when you control for ballpark and opponent. From start to finish the Mariners were hitting the ball pretty hard when they were hitting the ball. God only knows how Romero would've finished had he not gotten to face Carlos Peguero three times. Carlos Peguero struck out three times. I wish that I had a .gif of your face as you read that sentence. It would've looked like this:


except moving, but not really

Brendan Ryan batted three times and hit the ball hard each time, doubling once to the gap. Michael Saunders drilled a double down the right-field line on an inside fastball with good velocity. Saunders has always had pull power, but until this year he didn't really have opposite-field power, or up-the-middle power. He has those, and he's preserved his pull power, and though Saunders is far from a perfect sort of hitter, he has a pretty good idea now of what he could and should do with each pitch. In the second inning Brett Lawrie committed a fielding error allowing a run to score. Lawrie went 0-for-4 with four strikeouts and a run-scoring error. ROOT Sports caught him breaking a bat over his knee in the dugout. The Mariners did that to Brett Lawrie. Hisashi Iwakuma did that to Brett Lawrie. There's a certain satisfaction you feel when Felix's overpowering stuff leaves hitters talking to themselves, but there's a certain different satisfaction when Hisashi Iwakuma goes all crafty and Lawrie comes away feeling humiliated.

Jesus Montero knocked a line drive off of the second-base umpire, which won't work in Montero's favor when the second-base umpire becomes his home-plate umpire. The Mariners won despite John Jaso going 0-for-3, although Jaso did draw a walk because he can't help but help out. Montero made a terrific throw to second to catch Anthony Gose stealing even though replays suggested that Montero did not actually catch him in time. Josh Kinney came one out away from recording his first-ever save before yielding to Lucas Luetge, who recorded his first-ever save. Josh Kinney shouldn't have walked Kelly Johnson on four pitches with two out and none on. It's really Kinney's own fault. Luetge gets the save because David Cooper shot a grounder to Brendan Ryan's right, and Ryan ranged over, scooped the ball up, and threw the ball accurately to first base while flying in the air. It was a magnificent defensive play to end the game and we've grown so used to Ryan doing that that I don't think the ROOT Sports broadcast even said anything about it. We officially take Brendan Ryan's defense for granted, and while we can still recognize when he's amazing, the next Mariners shortstop after Ryan is going to look like one steaming pile of crap.

The Mariners have won five games in a row, their run differential is almost even, and tomorrow night they face Aaron Laffey. Jason Vargas will take the mound for Seattle. OR WILL HE


It's been such a long day. I'm so sorry. Mariners!