Blessed with the precision of a poet and the balance of a gymnast, Hisashi Iwakuma works by ably mixing pitches, disrupting the balance of opposing hitters, and avoiding the center of the strike zone. At the top of his game, few pitchers are more fun to watch; his success and near perfect mechanics make him one of baseball's finest artists.
The grace with which Iwakuma so often works makes it difficult to watch him fail. For me, at least, it's much easier to endure a Felix implosion than to watch Iwakuma scuffle. We've seen the King at his best so often, and we've wondered how in the world anyone is supposed to lay off his changeup or drive his slider. When Felix does struggle, you just tip your cap and move on. A similarly ambivalent principle applies for bad outings from young arms like James Paxton or Taijuan Walker: talented as they are, they're supposed to fail at this stage of their careers. It's part of the developmental process.
Seeing Iwakuma fail is much harder to bear. Watching Iwakuma labor through a spell of bad command is like watching a painter work while blindfolded. Every misplaced fastball or flat slider comes across as a disturbing surprise, and yet, I find myself expecting a positive outcome anyway, hoping that every mistake is all part of a much larger plan. Tonight though, there was no long-game, only the mistakes. It was almost shocking to watch Albert Pujols turn around a sinker that didn't sink, or to see David Freese pound a slider perched mysteriously high in the strike zone, but both simply did their damage on poorly located offerings. Ultimately, the Angels were able to break the spell of Iwakuma, taking advantage of a pitcher who found his touch two innings too late.
It's worth mentioning that Iwakuma didn't have much help from his defense or the BABIP gods. He was responsible for Pujols and Freese but somewhat less culpable for the other three runs he allowed. For every ten hits the shift takes away, it gives a few back; such was the case when Matt Joyce grounded out to where Robinson Cano would have stood, had this game been played ten years ago. Instead, the ball scuttled into no-man's land and off the webbing of Brad Miller's extended glove. Joyce and Freese then scored when Cano took his eye off of Erick Aybar's grounder into right field. If he fields it cleanly, the Angels only score twice in the inning. As it happened, they tacked on two more runs on the play, which was ultimately the winning margin in a 5-3 Angels victory.
Iwakuma settled down after the second. He began hitting his spots and inducing soft contact, allowing only three singles over his final four innings of work. The first two innings were ugly but he has plenty to build off of for his next outing.
Despite the deficit, the Mariners never quite felt out of the game. Matt Shoemaker is a wonderful success story, but like Iwakuma he walks a fine line, and he doesn't have the pedigree to inspire despair. He needs his splitter to be successful and on a night when his split wasn't particularly good -- he induced just five whiffs in thirty-four tries with the pitch -- the Mariners were unlucky to have not done more. They had their share of hard hit balls: Dustin Ackley jumped on an early fastball, roping a line drive right at Kole Calhoun in the first. Logan Morrison put runners on the corners in the second with a hard grounder into right field, only for Shoemaker to wriggle out of the jam by striking out Mike Zunino.
Brad Miller got to the Angels right-hander in the third. Shoemaker hung a splitter and Miller deposited it deep into the right field bleachers for his first homer of the season:
Bad base running short-circuited a Mariners rally later in the third, but Shoemaker found it difficult to get into a groove. Zunino smoked a single and Morrison hit a hard line drive, though nothing came of either. In the fifth Cano doubled, and Kyle Seager parked another hanging splitter for his first dinger of the year:
From there, it was a battle of the bullpens. Carson Smith was impressive again for the M's. Brought in to defuse a first and third situation with one out in the seventh, Smith made Pujols look silly on three sliders, with the future Hall of Famer unable to do anything but watch as strike three curved from his hip to the lower-inside quadrant of the strike zone. In the eighth, he worked out of his own self-induced jam by striking out Chris Iannetta and Johnny Giavotella.
It was in the eighth when the Mariners wasted their best scoring chance. After Ackley led off with an infield single, Cano doubled him to third. Ackley got a good jump and might have been able to score, but with the middle of the lineup due up and nobody out, held at third. Nelson Cruz followed with his worst at bat of the season, swinging at a couple of fastballs tailing in on his hands before chasing a slider that ran into the left handers batters box for strike three. Seager was walked intentionally to load the bases, but the M's stranded everyone when Rickie Weeks struck out and Morrison just missed a hittable fastball, flying out harmlessly to center to end the inning.
Danny Farquhar and Huston Street each pitched a perfect ninth, the latter slamming the door for his second save in as many nights.
The key at bat was when Weeks faced Joe Smith with the bases loaded and one out. Smith presents an almost impossible challenge for right-handed bats -- righties hit .133/.169/.217 against him last year -- and in a perfect world, Lloyd can turn to a lefty in that situation. But with a short bench -- Seth Smith sat out with a groin problem for the second night in a row -- Weeks had to bat, and he predictably made an out in a critical situation.
The sequence highlights a problem for the Mariners: by rigidly platooning and carrying just a four man bench, the M's will never be able to call on a lefty to face a righty specialist in a game started by a right-hander. In a league teeming with big-armed right handed-relievers, the M's can expect to face this situation short-handed again soon.
A few bullets:
- We can vote on whether it counts as a TOOTBLAN or not, but the Mariners were hamstrung by a bad base running decision in the third inning. With one run already home, nobody out, and a 1-0 count on Ackley, Austin Jackson took off for second. He didn't get his best jump and was gunned down by Iannetta. With nobody out, I didn't like the decision: Jackson ran on a fastball count, which might have made sense if Ackley was protecting him, but he ended up watching the pitch go by for ball two. Had the hit and run been on, Ackley probably fouls it off. As it was, Jackson ended the rally before it could begin.
- Mike Scioscia, rarely lauded for his tactical acumen, made a nifty defensive substitution early in the game. With a 5-1 lead in the sixth, Scioscia replaced plodding left fielder Efren Navarro with the more defensively-minded Collin Cowgill. The new left fielder didn't have much impact over the rest of the game but I like the idea of a team playing a more defensive lineup once they have the lead. I feel like most managers wouldn't have opted for the defensive caddy so early, especially in a game that wasn't all that close at the time.
- Nominally the twenty-fifth man on the roster, Smith arguably has the best stuff of any Mariners reliever, and his slider was a true wipeout pitch again tonight. He'll have a battle on his hands for high-leverage work with this team's bullpen crew but it wouldn't be surprising if he's eased into regular set-up duty over the next month or two.
The loss drops the Mariners to 1-2 on the season and now they'll have to wait two days for another game. It'll be a good one though: Taijuan Walker is set to make his first start of the season in Oakland. He'll face Drew Pomeranz, a young lefty who took a promising step forward in limited duty for the A's last year.