Hisashi Iwakuma delivers a big Mariners victory on his 32nd birthday
Kyle Seager delivers big two-run double in opening inning for Mariners.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Rangers @ Mariners, 6:10 p.m., ROOT
Hisashi Iwakuma already had the weight of a country on his shoulders as he headed into his all-Japan mound showdown against a guy he'd faced for years back home.
But beyond the obvious pride and pressure associated with taking on fellow Japanese countryman Yu Darvish and the Texas Rangers, Iwakuma knew his own team was in dire need of a victory in an early season quickly going astray. And so, it was a doubly special 32nd birthday gift Iwakuma gave himself Friday night when he pitched his Mariners to a 3-1 victory over his much more heralded opponents, securing some personal bragging rights and team-oriented breathing room in a difficult week.
"This was a big game, obviously because we were on a losing streak and I wanted to stop that streak," Iwakuma said, through interpreter Antony Suzuki. "And behind all that, we got to face Darvish, too. So, it was very exciting. And it was a very big win for us."
The Mariners had dropped three in a row at home and seven of nine overall before sending an injury-depleted lineup out against consensus early season Cy Young Award contender Darvish. But the Mariners surprised both Darvish and the crowd of 15,029 with a rare, multi-run first inning that would prove the decisive rally in a contest that belonged to the pitchers the rest of the way.
Raul Ibanez lined a single off Darvish to score Jason Bay with the first run of the game, then Kyle Seager ripped a double past diving first baseman Mitch Moreland and up the right-field line. Kendrys Morales and Ibanez both wound up scoring in a rare combination for the Mariners of veteran and young bats producing simultaneously.
Staked to the 3-0 lead, Iwakuma took full advantage. He retired the first nine batters before Ian Kinsler drove a solo, shortened-fences-aided home run to left field for the only run Texas would score.
Using a devastating split-fingered fastball to keep the Rangers guessing, Iwakuma promptly retired the next five batters. The Rangers didn't get another base runner until there were two out in the fifth, when Iwakuma walked his first batter of the 2013 season.
That halted his streak at 18 innings without a walk to start the year, second on the Mariners list behind the 22-1/3 innings logged by Cliff Lee to begin the 2010 season.
Iwakuma would notch the first two outs of the seventh inning before being pulled after his 90th pitch when a blood blister problem on his finger began flaring up anew. Charlie Furbush and Stephen Pryor kept the Rangers off the scoreboard through the eighth and then Tom Wilhelmsen closed out a 1-2-3 ninth for the much-needed Mariners victory.
"That was something that I had to think about being on the mound," said Iwakuma, who struck out six and walked just the one batter. "But I should be ready after five days of rest, ready for my next start."
Darvish didn't allow a hit the rest of the night after that first inning, keeping the Mariners in check until leaving after six frames. The Mariners loaded the bases with one out in the eighth, but Bay grounded into a double play and forced Wilhelmsen to be on his toes with only a two-run lead in the ninth.
Wilhelmsen said the Iwakuma heading to the mound now looks completely different and more comfortable with his surroundings than the guy he first saw a year ago.
"He's just amazing and to do it against a team like that on his birthday, I just couldn't be happier for him," Wilhelmsen said. "It kind of gets us off of a losing streak and we'll hopefully get something rolling."
The Mariners will have to get on that roll without Michael Morse and Michael Saunders, both out with injuries. They were without Franklin Gutierrez as well, since the Mariners are trying to keep him fresh and healthy early on.
But against Darvish, who'd entered 2-0 with a 1.98 ERA, the Mariners did just enough to prevail on a night Iwakuma didn't need much.
"He was throwing really well on both sides of the plate with all of his pitches," Mariners catcher Kelly Shoppach said. "He was just outstanding. Actually, we didn't even use his curveball. I couldn't find a spot to use it."
Iwakuma was so good with his splitter that Shoppach didn't need the curve. And while that pitch in particular took a toll on Iwakuma's blister, Shoppach said he couldn't tell the pain was getting progressively worse for his pitcher.
Shoppach also insisted the pain of the recent losing streak hasn't impacted the clubhouse the way outsiders might think. He said manager Eric Wedge has instilled it within the players to stay levelheaded regardless of the on-field results.
"You need to be the same guy every day," Shoppach said. "Whether you're playing well or not, you come in here and be a good teammate and that's really the only thing we can control. How we are with one another, how we interact with one another.
"Games and success, that comes and goes. But you come in here and have each others' backs."
Geoff Baker: 206-464-8286 or firstname.lastname@example.org