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Iwakuma on fire heading into Friday’s start

Hisashi Iwakuma heads into Friday's start against Oakland with a 1.61 ERA, which ranks fourth in the American League and sixth in all of baseball. (AP)

By Alex Bigelow
Special to

Hisashi Iwakuma lacks the flair for dramatics that Felix Hernandez has come to master.

Looking beyond the patented leg-lift-point-to-the-sky, ever-growing neck tattoo and the confidence of a man that just got paid $175 million and you find a pitcher in Iwakuma who so far this season is keeping pace with Hernandez.

The 32-year-old right-hander heads into his start against the Athletics on Friday sporting a 3-1 record and a 1.61 ERA that ranks sixth in the MLB.

But Iwakuma’s emergence is also helping curb the instability that has plagued the Mariners’ rotation the last two seasons.

Since trading away Doug Fister to the Tigers in 2011, the Mariners have seen 13 different starting pitchers not named Hernandez take the hill. Jason Vargas was a mainstay, although he had bouts of ineffectiveness with an ERA of 4.04 over the 2011 and 2012 seasons. Michael Pineda was an all-star as a rookie before he was traded to the Yankees the following offseason. Does the name Erik Bedard conjure any bad memories? If 255 1/3 innings over four seasons doesn’t do it, looking at Adam Jones’ batting average will do the trick.

How about Anthony Vasquez, Erasmo Ramirez and Hector Noesi? That trio combined to go 4-21 with a 5.87 ERA in their brief stints between 2011 and 2012.

The others include Joe Saunders, Blake Beaven, Brandon Maurer, Kevin Millwood, Aaron Harang and Charlie Furbush.

All of them at some point have struggled in establishing themselves as cogs in the rotation worthy of future consideration, and the record of those not named Vargas, Fister, Iwakuma and Hernandez is a combined 47-86 since 2011.

Iwakuma’s 11-5 record and 2.21 ERA since the 2012 All-Star break needs no extra applause. Just for reference, though, Justin Verlander, the 2011 American League MVP and Cy Young winner, posted an ERA of 2.36 over that same period. How about 2012 Cy Young winner David Price? 3.5. And King Felix? 2.55.

And Iwakuma has been in rare form of late, posting a 1.17 ERA over his last 30 2/3 innings, including an 11-strikeout performance against the Astros on April 23.
But this past series against the Blue Jays illustrated just the 1-2 punch Hernandez and Iwakuma have formed.

On Friday, Hernandez did his typical eight-inning, seven-strikeout thing while allowing no runs on five hits. He only allowed one runner to advance beyond second base.

Iwakuma came out the next day, blistered finger and all, and tossed seven innings of one-run ball while striking out five.

“Kuma’s been pitching as good as you can ask a starting pitcher up here to pitch really all through the second half of last year, and he has brought it into this year,” Mariners manager Eric Wedge said of Iwakuma following Seattle’s 8-1 win Saturday. “He’s a hard worker; he knows how to stick to a gameplan.”

Iwakuma managed to escape a bases-loaded, one-out situation in the first inning Saturday by striking out Colby Rasmus and Rajai Davis to end the threat.

“That is about as impressive as it gets in regard to that first inning,” Wedge told Rick Rizzs during the pregame show Sunday. “You talk about a big-league pitcher doing about as good as you can do in that type of situation early in the game. … He executes pitches and has a feel for the game as good as anyone we have here.”

Iwakuma may not have a catchy nickname or a clever following, but he can take the title of the guy who came in and produced while so many others did not.

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