April 2012

The interesting case of Hisashi Iwakuma

They say you often learn more in defeat than victory and we certainly learned a few things about the Mariners the last two games in Toronto.

Among the obvious: You don’t score much when going a combined 0-for-22 with runners in scoring position in back-to-back games, which is why the Mariners only managed two runs — on solo home runs by Chone Figgins and Miguel Olivo in 7-0 and 7-2 losses over the weekend.

It also doesn’t matter how good your starting pitching is if your bullpen coughs up nine runs in three innings, as Hisashi Iwakuma, Steve Delabar and Charlie Furbush managed. Yeah, Kevin Millwood and Jason Vargas were tagged with the two losses, but they both pitched pretty well.

But when you don’t get any run support and your bullpen gets hammered, well, that would be the polar opposite of how the Mariners won the series opener with the 9-5 win in 10 innings.

Which brings us to the interesting saga of Iwakuma. Manager Eric Wedge used every pitcher in his bullpen EXCEPT Iwakuma in Friday’s victory, not surprising since the former Japanese standout had been used just once in the first three weeks of the season.

But needing to rest his other arms, Wedge brought in Iwakuma with a 3-0 deficit in the eighth inning Saturday — and immediately watched him load the bases and give up a grand slam to Edwin Encarnacion before retiring a single batter.

Wedge says long relievers often are held in reserve for long stretches, just by the nature of their position, and we saw that last year with Jeff Gray at times. But there is another issue with Iwakuma, which is that he takes a long time to warm up and Wedge hasn’t trusted bringing him in during the middle of an inning because he doesn’t know if he can get ready in that scenario.

So Iwakuma is only being ticketed for situations that can be foreseen enough in advance to get him warmed up, which limits his use even more than a normal long reliever. And that makes for a Catch-22, since Iwakuma won’t stay sharp if he’s not used. And Wedge won’t trust him if he’s not effective when he does get opportunities.

Speaking through his translator, Iwakuma insisted he’s not frustrated by the situation, though it’s obviously not an easy transition for a 30-year-old who has been one of Japan’s premier starters for the past decade.

It’s an interesting dilemma, which is why I asked Wedge on Sunday if Iwakuma is learning to warm up quicker as he’s adjusting to his bullpen role.

“I’m hoping,” Wedge said. “I got him up the night before (on Friday). And he got ready quicker (Saturday). The next step is just to see how long it takes him to recover. When is he going to be ready to pitch again after throwing just one inning?

“If he can start to do some of those things instead of just being a straight long guy, then we can get him into the mix a little more. What he has to really understand is what was the difference early and late (on Saturday), because it was truly night and day. He was pitching there those last three hitters and more importantly, using all his pitches.”

Iwakuma gave up a single, double and intentional walk before Encarnacion’s slam, then retired three straight batters.

“This game can speed up quick on you,” Wedge said. “You’re trying to work in and get ahead and they keep bum-rushing you and that’s what happens.”

But, no, Wedge does not think Iwakuma’s slow preparation time is why he got knocked around at the start of that inning.

“He was ready,” Wedge said. “We had him up the inning before, too, so he was good and ready. If I’d brought him in the inning before, that would make some sense.”

So that’s the situation as it stands. Iwakuma threw four innings with just one hit — a home run — in his MLB debut against the White Sox on April 20. Eight days later, he got his second opportunity — in the 23rd game of the season — and got rocked pretty good.

Iwakuma came to Seattle because he wanted to see if he could succeed in the Major Leagues. He didn’t pitch well in Spring Training and was surprised to be assigned to the bullpen. But he’s going to need to show enough there to get more chances, whether as a long man or spot starter if needed down the road.

Whether Iwakuma can make it work — and whether Wedge trusts him enough to give him more work — will be one of the storylines to watch as this season continues to unfold.

As Eric Wedge says, ‘Kudos to Michael Saunders’

Michael Saunders celebrates with Jesus Montero after his 10th inning grand slam during Friday's 9-5 win in Toronto. (Getty Images)Yeah, baseball is a funny game sometimes. How many people had written off Michael Saunders after last season? Or an easier question, how many figured him as still part of the Mariners’ future after he struggled through a .149 season with two home runs and eight RBIs in 58 games?

Remember when Franklin Gutierrez was being touted as the big offseason story? How the former Gold Glover was healthy again, buffed up beyond recognition and ready to reclaim center field.

But here we are tonight in Toronto, 21 games into the season, and word comes from Eric Wedge that Gutierrez now is battling plantar faciitis in his heel amid his frustrating comeback from ongoing healthy problems that figure to sideline him at least another month.

And a couple hours later, up steps Saunders to belt two home runs — a solo shot in the ninth and a game-winning grand slam in the 10th — to lift the Mariners to a 9-5 victory, the fourth straight for a team that seems to be finding itself.

Tonight’s win was big for several reasons. It came against Toronto standout Ricky Romero, a very tough lefty. It came on the heels of the three-game sweep in Detroit and added another boost of confidence to a young squad that had a perfect game and rugged 3-6 homestand shoved down its throat just last week.

And it came with players contributing everywhere — Ichiro gunning down a runner at the plate, Miguel Olivo making a great tag on that key play, John Jaso delivering a clutch pinch-hit RBI, Blake Beavan supplying another solid start, Jesus Montero with a big-time home run, Casper Wells with a clutch RBI double.

Manager Eric Wedge went so deep onto his bench that every position player and all the relievers except Hisashi Iwakuma were used by the end of it. He went so deep that starter Hector Noesi was warming up to pinch run if needed when Saunders delivered his big blow.

And, yeah, Saunders was the biggest of the heroes, fittingly on a night in Canada when many of his countrymen were heckling him as a British Columbia native and mockingly chanting “Saun-ders, Saun-ders” while he played center field.

“I guess we got the last laugh,” he said with a smile, as detailed in my game story here.

Wedge appreciates the transformation Saunders has undergone. His average is up to .254 and climbing. His three home runs and 11 RBIs have already exceeded last year’s season output. His confidence is growing.

“He’s a completely different hitter this year,” said Wedge. “To his credit, with the work he did this winter and how he came in and made the ballclub this spring, I think it was evident to everybody. He’s always been a complete ballplayer, but the hitting was a little short. But this year it hasn’t.

“He’s still learning. I was impressed with the way he fought through at-bats earlier tonight even before his home runs. Kudos to Michael Saunders.”

Kudos, indeed. Great stuff by a young player who vowed to come back swinging this season and now is turning into a key part of the club’s early success.

History at Safeco … and I missed it!

Yeah, history happened yesterday at Safeco Field … and I missed it. After two months on the road for Spring Training, Tokyo and a season-opening road trip, the boss was nice enough to give me a few days off during the opening homestand and one of them happened to be Saturday … when Philip Humber threw a perfect game against the Mariners.

MLB.com veteran Doug Miller filled in capably for me, so no worries there. But the real behind-the-scenes story to me is that White Sox beat writer Scott Merkin also happened to be off — having skipped the Seattle road swing for his team — so we have my new Mariners associate reporter Josh Liebeskind filling in on the White Sox all three games.

That would normally be a difficult-enough task for a young guy who just graduated from the University of Washington and had a grand total of one week of training. But to get a perfect game — just the 21st in Major League history — thrown at him on the third game story he’d written for MLB.com? Well, that’s unbelievable.

And the kid handled it beautifully. Here’s his game story for the front of MLB.com. Great stuff for any writer.

And, yeah, I’m just a little jealous I missed out on history! But back at the park today as the Mariners try to turn things around.

Justin Smoak is out of the lineup today as he’s been battling that sore hamstring, so that’s not a big surprise.

Here’s the full lineup today:

Chone Figgins CF
Dustin Ackley 2B
Ichro Suzuki RF
Jesus Montero DH
Alex Liddi 1B
Kyle Seager 3B
Miguel Olivo C
Casper Wells LF
Brendan Ryan SS

Kevin Millwood P

Wedge going with his righty lineup vs. Sale

Mariners manager Eric Wedge is trotting out his right-handed heavy lineup tonight to face White Sox southpaw Chris Sale in the series opener at Safeco.

For fans calling for John Jaso, that’s why Wedge has Miguel Olivo and Jesus Montero in the lineup today and not the left-handed hitting Jaso.

Let’s make a couple things clear with Jaso. I like the guy and think he could help out this year, but I’m not sure why exactly he’s become such a flashpoint of fan interest this early. He was a career .245 hitter with 10 home runs and 71 RBIs in 203 games for Tampa Bay over the past four years.

The Rays gave him up for reliever Josh Lueke because he wasn’t part of their plans. He might find a spot in Seattle, but when Jesus Montero arrived, that role clearly lessened.

Jaso obviously made a nice early impression with a home run and triple and some key RBIs in his first three games, so I get that people want to see more. But let’s not make the guy into Johnny Bench just because he has a .273 average in 11 at-bats.

That said, if people want to argue for Jaso over Olivo for playing time against right-handed pitchers, have at it. I don’t think any of us have seen Jaso behind the plate enough to know exactly how good he might be there, but I understand the debate.

But against left-handed pitchers, that’s not a valid baseball argument. Jaso is a career .185 hitter with a .598 OPS against left-handed pitchers. He’s a career .255 with a .729 OPS against right-handers. So, no, he’s not in the lineup today, but will be available as a left-handed pinch hitter on the bench.

Olivo is a career .275 with a .790 OPS against left-handers. Against righties, he’s at .229 and .658. So no matter what you think of Olivo, he’s a better option against left-handers than Jaso.

Wedge has Alex Liddi and Casper Wells in against Sale today, as he’s done in previous left-handed matchups. The Mariners haven’t seen many southpaws so far this season, but do have three of their next five games against lefties, so it’ll be interesting to see how he approaches that coming up.

Here’s today’s full lineup:

Chone Figgins CF
Dustin Ackley 2B
Ichiro Suzuki RF
Justin Smoak 1B
Jesus Montero C
Miguel Olivo DH
Alex Liddi 3B
Casper Wells LF
Brendan Ryan SS

Hector Noesi RHP

Smoak back in lineup Thursday

Just got to the park and the roof is sliding closed, I’m guessing for the duration of the evening as it’s pretty cloudy and threatening at least at the moment.

We’ll see how that plays out. But two things we know for sure already. It’s Felix Hernandez on the mound tonight for the Mariners, which always makes for a fun evening at the park. And Justin Smoak is back in the lineup after sitting out yesterday with a tight hamstring.

Here’s the full lineup for today’s series finale against the Indians, who are throwing right-hander Josh Tomlin.

Chone Figgins LF
Dustin Ackley 2B
Ichiro Suzuki RF
Justin Smoak 1B
Kyle Seager 3B
Michael Saunders CF
Miguel Olivo C
John Jaso DH
Brendan Ryan SS

Felix Hernandez RHP

As usual, I’ll have a full array of pregame news and notes on Mariners.com, or you can follow me on Twiter at @gregjohnsmlb.

Smoak sidelined with tight hamstring

 First baseman Justin Smoak is not in the lineup tonight after his four-hit outing on Tuesday, which understandably raised some eyebrows.

Turns out the big first baseman has some mild tightness in his right hamstring, so he’s getting a day off. Dustin Ackley starts in his place at first, which is a first in itself.

Munenori Kawasaki gets the start at second base.

Ackley played first base his entire junior year at North Carolina while recovering from Tommy John surgery, so he’s not new to the position. But he has only seen some very spot duty there in late-inning relief during Cactus League play and one game last year.

Smoak went 4-for-5 on Tuesday to raise his season average to .250, so not ideal timing to come up gimpy. But you can bet the Mariners want to make sure a tight hamstring doesn’t turn into something more. We’ll hear from manager Eric Wedge and hopefully Smoak himself when the clubhouse opens in a little bit.

Here’s the full lineup for tonight’s game against the Indians:

Chone Figgins LF
Dustin Ackley 1B
Ichiro Suzuki RF
Jesus Montero DH
Kyle Seager 3B
Michael Saunders CF
Miguel Olivo C
Munenori Kawasaki 2B
Brendan Ryan SS

Jason Vargas LHP

Wedge isn’t worried about Felix’s velocity

Felix Hernandez is back on the mound for his third appearance of the season tonight. And while there has been considerable talk about his decreased velocity this spring, manager Eric Wedge says it’s a non-issue.

And, indeed, Hernandez was throwing 91-93 with his fastball in his last outing at Oakland,which isn’t much different than what he’s hit the last two years. Prior to that, the radar readings in Tokyo for his opener were in kilometers per hour, so take that for what you want.

As far as Wedge is concerned, it’s the same Felix as always.

“The velocity is right there,” Wedge said. “I know you’re trying to make something, but you’re talking about a guy who was still hitting 93 last time and that’s pretty much what he is. He’s a low 90- to mid-90s guy that pitches.

“Can he reach back to get more if he wants to, sure.  But he pitches, he uses all 5-6 of hjis pitches. He throws them where he wants to and when he wants to, which is as important as anything for him. I don’t have any worries in regard to that.”

Hernandez did struggle late in his last start, when he gave up six runs and eight hits in 6 1/3 innings in Oakland. So we’ll see if anything carries over. But from what I’ve seen of Hernandez this spring, he’s indeed been as sharp as ever and his velocity certainly has been good enough — in combination with his other pitches — to make him as tough as anybody in baseball when he’s on.

So we’ll keep an eye on things going forward, but people need to realize Hernandez hasn’t been a heat-throwing, upper-90s guys. He was mid-90s when he came to Seattle as a teenager, but in recent years he’s relied far more on his versatile arsenal than pure gas.


Sherrill goes on DL, Furbush recalled and today’s lineup

The Mariners made a roster move before today’s home opener, with lefty reliever George Sherrill going on the 15-day disabled list with an elbow problem and Charlie Furbush getting recalled from Triple-A Tacoma.

That’s a move that shouldn’t be any surprise, given Sherrill’s early troubles this year. He’s been talking about soreness in his elbow since Spring Training started, when he was held back initially and never has been quite right.

Also, Mike Carp starts a rehab stint tonight with Triple-A Tacoma, though the weather is lousy in Fresno and it’s not certain the Rainiers will get there game in today. Carp is coming back from a sprained right shoulder suffered on Opening Day in Tokyo.

Here’s tonight’s home opening lineup vs. the A’s:

9  Chone Figgins (S)      LF
13  Dustin Ackley (L)      2B
51  Ichiro Suzuki (L)      RF
17  Justin Smoak (S)       1B
15  Kyle Seager (L)        3B
63  Jesus Montero          DH
55  Michael Saunders (L)   CF
30  Miguel Olivo           C
26  Brendan Ryan           SS

34  Felix Hernandez        RHP

A different look in today’s lineup for early start

Mariners manager Eric Wedge juggled his lineup a bit for Thursday’s series finale against the Rangers, giving rookie Alex Liddi his first start at third base and Casper Wells his initial shot in left field.

The two right-handed hitters replaced lefties Dustin Ackley and Michael Saunders, as the two were given a day off against Texas southpaw Derek Holland.

“I planned on doing that from the start of the season against the left-hander,” said Wedge. “You’ve got to play your guys. We’ve got to get them in there, so this has been the plan all along and I’m looking forward to watching them play. Holland has given us fits here in a short period of time he’s been up. Hopefully these guys will help us win a ballgame today.”

Holland is 3-0 with 5-1 with a 3.17 ERA in 10 games (six starts) against the Mariners, including 3-0 with a 2.77 ERA in four starts last year.

The question of the day from many seems to be why John Jaso isn’t back in the lineup today after going 2-for-4 with a triple and the go-ahead single in Wednesday’s 4-3 comeback win. But you have to remember the lefty-righty matchups. Jaso is a career .188 hitter against southpaws, .256 against righties.

When Jaso gets his chances this year, they aren’t going to come against tough left handers.

Ackley and Saunders are facing some “normal leg soreness” from getting back into the grind of playing every day, Wedge said, so they can use the day to rest before Seattle opens its home season Friday against the A’s.

Here’s today’s full lineup for the 11:05 a.m. start PT. This is Figgins’ first start in center field since 2006:

9  Chone Figgins (S)      CF
16  Alex Liddi             3B
51  Ichiro Suzuki (L)      RF
17  Justin Smoak (S)       1B
63  Jesus Montero          DH
15  Kyle Seager (L)        2B
30  Miguel Olivo           C
33  Casper Wells           LF
26  Brendan Ryan           SS
38  Jason Vargas           LHP

Wedge says Ryan benched for ‘accountability’ reasons

Mariners manager Eric Wedge said Brendan Ryan remains his starting shortstop, but he clearly wasn’t happy about how he played in Monday’s 11-5 loss to the Rangers and was sitting out Tuesday’s game as a result.

“Sometimes you have to watch a game instead of play and this is one of those days for Mr. Ryan,” Wedge said after replacing Ryan with Munenori Kawasaki.

“When I talk about certain things that need to happen this year — and there are conversations that have been had — there’s a level of accountability and responsibility that everybody has. It’s no more or less than that. I’m not going to dive into details on it. I’ll leave it at that.”

Wedge said Ryan would be back in the lineup on Wednesday. He also indicated it wasn’t just about the one defensive play in the first inning when Ryan threw wide of first base on a potential double-play ball that would have got Hector Noesi out of the first with a 4-0 lead. Instead, the Rangers scored twice to cut the lead to 4-2 and eventually stormed from behind.

“No, it’s not just about that,” Wedge said.

Did he have a sit-down conversation with Ryan as to what the issue was about?

“I think it’s inferred,” Wedge said.

As for Kawasaki, he’s given the manager a ready alternative after a strong spring in which he hit .455. He’s 2-for-7 in the past two games as well, filling in for Ryan on Saturday when the shortstop had a sore neck and playing second base on Monday.

“I like the way he’s playing and the at-bats he’s putting up,” said Wedge. “Obviously he brings a lot of energy for our ballclub. So I’ve got him in there. I’ve said before, Brendan Ryan is our starting shorstop. But every once in a while you’ve got to watch a game.”