You never know what you might see at a weekday afternoon game at Safeco Field in August.
Three years and three days after Felix Hernandez’s perfect game, Hisashi Iwakuma threw the fifth no-hitter in Mariners history and the first in the American League since Felix’s.
This one was tough if not impossible to see coming. Iwakuma threw a career-high 118 pitches in his previous start, and based on his history there was reason to think that perhaps he would need to be kept under 100 pitches in this one.
There was also the team on the other side. The Orioles are a good hitting team. From a pure stuff standpoint, it caught even his manager by surprise. Lloyd McClendon admitted afterward that Iwakuma would not be the first pitcher on his staff that came to mind as a potential no-hit candidate.
“Because he is a finesse guy,” McClendon explained. “I probably would have said (Taijuan) Walker has an opportunity, but the way the split was coming out today, I said, ‘He’s got a good chance.’ ”
The finesse and mix of pitches served Iwakuma well. The slider that he abandoned shortly after returning from the disabled list was back. The curveball was there as well. The splitter was nasty and the fastball had velocity.
“The guy is phenomenal. Phenomenal,” said third baseman Kyle Seager. “He mixes his pitches well, he’s got a ton of movement, he’s got deception in his delivery, he’s got deception in his windup. He goes out there and competes, works quickly. It was beautiful.”
Also beautiful was the circling, over-the-shoulder catch near the wall that Seager made on the popup in foul territory for the first out of the ninth inning.
“The Seager play was pretty darn good,” McClendon said. “I looked at (bench coach Trent Jewett) when he did that and I said, ‘He’s going to get it. He’s going to get it,’ because that’s just one of those plays that is magical in that particular moment.”
Magical was how the skipper chose to describe it. Inspiring is how the pitcher viewed it.
“I felt the defense playing real hard for me behind me, especially that play that Seager made in foul territory,” Iwakuma said through an interpreter. “That made me think, ‘I need to finish this game. I need to throw a no-hitter.’ ”
Beautiful or inspiring, however you choose to describe it, that play most likely would not have happened if not for what was perhaps the key pitch of the game the inning before. After giving up a leadoff walk to start the eighth, Iwakuma followed up with a strikeout of Ryan Flaherty. His pitch count was now over 100 with five outs to go and he was in danger of perhaps not completing the game. He fell behind Caleb Joseph 3-1.
“I get kind of nervous because 3-1, big-league hitters don’t really miss,” said catcher Jesus Sucre, whose job it was to come up with the next pitch. “I was trying to look with Lloyd or Trent to see if they could call a pitch and I was kind of nervous and I was like, ‘Oh my god, please help me, guys.’ ”
Sucre was on his own. There were no answers coming from the dugout.
“I can’t help you,” McClendon said with a chuckle as he recalled his response.
Sucre took a deep breath and then put the fingers down.
“In my mind I wanted to go fastball away because I know he is a pull hitter,” Sucre said. “He was throwing the ball good down there, outside. I called the pitch, I’m not going to lie, I was kind of nervous.”
Iwakuma hit his location and the ball headed to shortstop for a tailor-made double play. End of inning. Iwakuma was at 107 pitches and he would be allowed to return for the ninth.
“That was the big chills moment for me,” Seager said. “He got to 3-1 there and was able to get that double play ball and get out of that eighth inning. There weren’t too many balls that were in question. He was really, really dominant.”
Iwakuma came out for the ninth inning with a right-hander and left-hander up in the Mariners’ bullpen. They were not needed. On the ninth pitch of the inning, with two already down, Gerardo Parra hit a ball in the air to center field.
“As soon as I see the fly ball I was, ‘Oh my goodness, just catch, just catch,’ ” Sucre said.
Added Iwakuma: “I first thought the ball was going to dive in for a hit but when I saw (Austin Jackson) would be able to catch it I was very happy.”
The ball hit Jackson’s glove and Iwakuma had the fifth no-hitter in Mariners history.
“It’s an honor to be the fifth one to accomplish this achievement,” he said. “First half I missed a lot of time and I have to make up for what I have lost. I want to help the team win. I want to contribute and hopefully I get to continue what I am doing right now.”
Little chance he won’t be allowed to continue.
“I said about three weeks ago I thought The Bear was back and he’s only getting better,” McClendon said.
No-no aside, we have seen that since Iwakuma’s return from the DL. We have seen him make adjustments, mix his pitches more and generate more swings and misses. On Wednesday we saw it come together in spectacular fashion, once again on a weekday afternoon in August at Safeco Field.