‘He could face anybody’: Mariners teammates, manager look back at Hisashi Iwakuma’s career
Hisashi Iwakuma’s comeback from shoulder surgery will not come with the Mariners.
On Tuesday afternoon, he informed the media that after seven years in the Mariners organization he was heading back to Japan. On a minor league contract in 2018, his season came to an end when he stepped off the field in Everett following his second and final rehab start with the Single-A AquaSox earlier this month.
“It’s been a long process of rehab,” he said through interpreter Antony Suzuki. “But finally, in the long tunnel, I’m starting to see light. At this point, it’s unfortunate that I cannot come back as a Mariner, but Japan is my origin. That’s where I started my career and I think it’s a good place to end my career, too.”
The hope had been that Iwakuma would be able to contribute at the major league level this season, and things looked promising for him in spring training. Coming off a shoulder surgery last September, he was able to make it back up on a bullpen mound in the final days of spring training. There were starts and stops along the rehab route, however, and by the time he started to feel consistency in his bounce-back from throwing, there was nowhere left to pitch in the Mariners’ minor league system.
The brutal final two years with the Mariners do little to tarnish what he was able to bring to the club when healthy. Despite putting up very good numbers in Japan and winning an MVP award in 2008, his name did not have a huge amount of buzz when he signed a $1.5 million, incentive-laden contract with the Mariners in 2012. Teammates were curious as to what they would see.
“I first heard about Kuma at (former Mariners manager) Eric Wedge’s house,” Kyle Seager remembered. “We did a winter workout at Safeco Field for a few days and he told us we were going to get a quality pitcher and we would see where it goes, and obviously it worked out unbelievably well.”
That’s not to say there weren’t bumps at the beginning. All eyes were on Iwakuma’s first bullpen session that spring in Peoria, and the looks on the organizational faces watching ranged from concern to alarm. Kuma, who had dealt with shoulder issues in Japan, was getting nothing on the ball. No velocity, no life – nothing. It very well may have been that his process in getting ready for a season was different, but by the end of spring training there was little confidence he was where he needed to be. As a result, he started his rookie season in the bullpen.
“What I remembered was he spent 15 days in a bullpen without throwing a baseball,” said Félix Hernández. “He threw one inning of baseball throwing in the game and then they did move him in the rotation – and he did really, really good.”
Kuma made his big league debut coming out of the pen in the 15th game of the Mariners’ 2012 season. While he gave up just one run in four innings, he would not get the call for another eight days. The Mariners were slow in building him up, not giving him his first start until July 2. At that point he was up and running, and he made 16 starts the remainder of the way, recording a 2.65 ERA.
The following year, he finished third in Cy Young voting.
“I remember getting called up (from the minors) halfway thru 2013,” said Mike Zunino, “and catching a lot of his starts down the stretch, and (I) was amazed about what he could do with the baseball. How he manipulated it, how he could sink it, use his split. He would never miss his spot by more than half an inch.”
It was never flashy with Iwakuma, and it seemed at times that actually played in his favor. Teams who were perhaps gearing up for Félix back then sometimes looked almost caught off-guard when Kuma followed. Against the Angels he was particularly fun, holding Mike Trout to a .189 batting average against and Albert Pujols to .150.
“He was a guy if you watched a bullpen, he wasn’t throwing 100 and doing all this other stuff. But man, he had a lot of movement and guys didn’t pick it up well,” noted Seager. “The good splitter, he’d throw the slider in there. The fastball had that good sink. He just pitched. He just knew what he was doing and every fifth day when he took the mound you just felt good about it.”
Be it in Iwakuma’s earliest years when he was at his healthiest or later years when he was battling injuries and in ‘find-a-way’ mode, it never escaped me watching him pitch and compete that this was a No. 1 pitcher. Regardless of where he slotted in the Mariners’ rotation, his mentality was what it had been when pitching in Japan. Félix saw that as well.
“He was a No. 1 for sure,” he said. “We talked a lot. He’s got a great mind, he knows how to pitch. The way he goes about his business, he could face anybody. Superstar, he didn’t care, he would just go after them. Great teammate, great guy.”
“Kuma is a warrior,” said Scott Servais. “We really saw that. He will come out into the ballgame, you will look up in the first, second inning and say, ‘Oh my gosh, he doesn’t have much today. How’s he going to get through?’ And he’d figure out a way. His feel to pitch, to maneuver through a lineup, to make pitches when he has to, Kuma can really pitch.”
There was a lot to be learned from Iwakuma, from his routine and preparation to how he handled hitters and used his stuff. He set an example for young pitchers in the rotation, and made a lasting impact on a young catcher as well.
“He was a guy that really taught me how to use pitches even with other pitchers,” said Zunino. “The way he was able to control his breaking ball. How he could throw to both sides of the plate with all of his pitches. It challenged me to do that with other guys and really push guys to be a little bit more creative with their pitch-calling.”
Iwakuma leaves Seattle and MLB with a 63-39 record, 3.42 ERA, 714 strikeouts, a clubhouse full of teammates who respect him, and, of course, the no-hitter. Not bad at all for a major league career that started at age 31.
“It’s hard to describe it in words but it has obviously been more than I expected,” Kuma said of his time in MLB. “It’s a very tough league to compete in here. I came here to challenge how much I can do here. It worked out very well for me.
“Being able to wear a Mariners uniform for seven years, that’s something special for me.”