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.

3 Comments

Yes, a very interesting and awkward situation for Kuma. It must be very humbling for him to be relegated to least used bullpen pitcher after being a big superstar in Japan. The bottom line is, his stuff is just not that potent. I was watching his pitches, even in his first long relief outing and I was wondering how in the world the opposing hitters weren’t blasting them over the fence. They looked like batting practice pitches. Honestly, I think he was a little lucky in his first appearance except for the batting practice homer he gave up to the monster mash.

Need to send him back to Japan!

Sounds like he belongs in the rotation, that’s were his experience is. Wedge is stuck on Millwood and gave him a rotation spot before he even earned one. Iwakuma didnt have a strong spring but keeping him buried in the bullpen could end up being a wasted roster spot. Expecting a 10 yr starter to revert into a once a month relief pitcher is a bit far fetched.

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