It appeared that Seattle Mariners pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma was in for another rough outing. After a walk and two straight hits, the bases were loaded in the top of the first inning against the Los Angeles Angels on Saturday night, and All-Star designated hitter Albert Pujols was at bat. But Iwakuma made some great pitches, striking out Pujols, and then got some great defensive help: an out at home on shortstop Erick Aybar’s ground ball to third and a diving catch by Nelson Cruz in right field. After escaping this inning, the Mariners would go on to win 5-0 in Seattle.
In his second start off the disabled list after rehabbing a strained right lat injury, Iwakuma was looking to improve from his last start. Against the Detroit Tigers on July 6, he went five innings and gave up eight hits and five runs, but the most troubling aspect of his performance were the four home runs he gave up.
After the game, though, the most important thing was Iwakuma did not feel any discomfort. “He threw strikes and he was healthy,” Bench Coach Trent Jewett said, according to ESPN. “I don’t think he commanded the ball probably the way he prefers, but he came out of it healthy.”
The command certainly approved for Iwakuma in this start. After the first inning, he allowed only one walk and one hit, finishing the game with a line of eight innings, zero runs, three hits, two walks and six strikeouts. He threw first-pitch strikes to 25 of the 29 batters he faced and threw 101 pitches; the last time he threw over 100 was August 13 of last year against the Blue Jays.
After giving up a single to first baseman C.J. Cron in the fourth inning, Iwakuma retired the last 12 batters he faced. He never seemed overmatched, and by throwing so many first-pitch strikes, it allowed him to work more efficiently and with the upper hand in almost every at-bat. He also had all of his pitches working for him. He had a few fastballs reach 93 mph and had great control on his splitter and two-seam fastball. He also worked in a few curveballs, getting two big strikeouts of center fielder Mike Trout and Aybar in the sixth inning on the pitch. According to fangraphs.com, he has thrown the curveball only 2.5% of the time this year, so perhaps he’ll employ it more as another weapon.
The performance was certainly encouraging for the Mariners. “That’s the Iwakuma I know and love. It was nice to see him back,” Mariners Manager Lloyd McClendon said after the game, according to The Seattle Times.
With the start, Iwakuma lowered his ERA from 7.17 to 5.22. As the last start before the All-Star break, the Mariners will hope Iwakuma will pitch more like this than his last start in the second half of the season. They currently sit seven games out of first place behind the Houston Astros in the American League West, and Iwakuma can help the team try to make a run if he gives them a chance to win every time he pitches.