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Originally published May 25, 2013 at 2:18 PM | Page modified May 25, 2013 at 9:58 PM

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Hisashi Iwakuma gives Mariners potent No. 2 starter

Iwakuma has compiled a 5-1 record and 2.37 earned run average and is quietly building a case for a spot on the American League All-Star team. Iwakuma has been one of the game's top starters since last year's Midsummer Classic, posting the league's second-best earned run average since that time.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Hisashi Iwakuma file

Position: Pitcher

Throws: Right

Height, weight: 6-3, 210

Age: 32

Contract: Signed by the Mariners through the 2014 season with a team option for 2015.

Did you know? Beat Yu Darvish for the best ERA (1.87) in Japan's Pacific League in 2008 while with Tohoku Rakuten.

Recent statistics

Year GS W-L ERA K/9*
2012 16 9-5 3.16 7.3
2013 10 5-1 2.37 8.5
* Strikeouts per nine innings average

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During his team's trip to New York last week, Mariners starter Hisashi Iwakuma was asked a favor by Yankees counterpart Hiroki Kuroda.

His fellow Japanese countryman wanted Iwakuma to show him how he gripped his split-fingered fastball, which is fast becoming a topic of conversation for opposing hitters around the league. Iwakuma was quick to oblige and Kuroda, already known for his own splitter in becoming the Yankees' leading starter this season, went out and tested the new grip a few nights later in his next start against Toronto.

"Also, my fastball has a different grip and he was interested in that," Iwakuma said, through interpreter Antony Suzuki. "I got to know him well last year over here in the United States. He's a big senior player from back in Japan, he's older, so I wanted to talk to him when I could and ask him about some things."

This time last year, freshly arrived in the majors after years of pitching in Japan, Iwakuma was the one seeking out advice from anyone who'd help. He'd ask about everything from in-game pitching tips, to team protocol on the road, how to best prepare between starts and where to go eat in Seattle.

That he's now better-versed in such basics and is the one occasionally dispensing advice instead of always taking it is one of several heavy burdens removed for Iwakuma, 32, who wants this year to be more about his pitching.

And so far, that's been the case for a No. 2 starter who has compiled a 5-1 record and 2.37 earned-run average and is quietly building a case for a spot on the American League All-Star team. Iwakuma has been one of the game's top starters since last year's Midsummer Classic, posting the league's second-best earned-run average since that time.

Gone is the shoulder weakness that plagued him the first half of last season as he recovered from an injury the prior year. Iwakuma developed a better between-outings routine while working out of the bullpen, parlayed that into a better second half as a starter, then built the shoulder up even more with an enhanced offseason strength and conditioning routine.

That added strength has given him the downward plane and diving action needed on his splitter and two-seam fastball to keep hitters off-balance. And as a result, Iwakuma is no longer feeling so off-balance plying his trade in a new country for the first time.

"The biggest difference, obviously, is the experience that I had last year with everything," Iwakuma said. "It helps a lot. It gives me a lot of confidence, as opposed to not knowing anything last year. So, that gives me the biggest comfort.

"Going out there with a positive attitude and expecting good things to happen is so important in this game," he added. "So, I try to take advantage of everything I learned last year — the good and the bad. Right now, pitching my game and focusing on just my pitching is what I've been doing. And I expect to have good outcomes when I do that because of the good times I've had before when I act that way."

Focusing on his mound work is made easier knowing that his immediate family has adapted to their new life in a quiet Seattle suburb. It's one of the biggest reasons he opted to re-sign early in the free-agency period with the Mariners for two years and $14 million rather than seriously test the open market.

At least two other teams in the AL West alone — the Angels and the Athletics — were said to have been highly interested in bidding for Iwakuma's services. But the Mariners locked him up quickly, impressed by his second-half numbers in just 16 starts.

"Seattle's a pretty good environment for kids," Iwakuma said. "I like that they can play outside. Obviously, when it's raining out, they can't do that, but we try to do it as much as possible. We like the feel of Seattle. It's a good, safe environment for a family and we generally like being there.

"The people and the team have supported me as a player and us as a family," he added. "So, it's been great for us."

On rare off days, Iwakuma will spend time at home with his wife, Madoka, and their children, Towa, Uta and Rima. Occasionally, they'll head out shopping together, which Iwakuma can do freely since, he admits, nobody in town ever recognizes him in public.

"I don't really know that many places to go yet and we haven't had too many off-days to do that," he said. "But with some coming up, I think it will be worth exploring more."

Family weighed heavily on Iwakuma's mind last season as he worried about their adjustment to life here. He was also dealing with an ailing father back in Japan, who he'd speak to by phone whenever he could.

By July, he was told that his father, Tokujai, was too sick to talk to by phone anymore and advised to fly back home to say his goodbyes since the illness had progressed to the point where he didn't have long to live. Iwakuma requested a 48-hour leave from the team and flew home to Japan.

He returned to Seattle the day before a July 30 start against Toronto. Iwakuma went out the next night and fanned a career-high 13 batters.

His father died in early September. Iwakuma remained with the team, his goodbyes having already been said.

"I've since been able to shift my mind," Iwakuma said. "I had my other career as a starter with him alive before. And now, this is a new career as a starter without my father. Having a good frame of mind and being able to focus was tough at that time. But I have that with me now today, and it makes a difference."

Iwakuma has made a big difference for the Mariners, teaming with ace Felix Hernandez to form perhaps the most potent 1-2 starting combination in baseball. Having the duo enabled the Mariners to last week creep within a game of .500 and bought the squad time to figure out what to do with the back end of the rotation.

His biggest issue to date this season has been a nagging blister on his throwing hand that would worsen with the torque needed to throw his splitters and two-seam fastballs. As a result, the better his pitching, the shorter his outings would get in April as the team struggled to manage his workload with no off days with which to spread his starts out.

Only in May, with more off days, has the team been able to effectively manage the blister to where he's been going seven innings per start on a regular basis.

"It comes and goes now," Iwakuma said. "Sometimes, it will grow, sometimes it won't show up at all. I'm monitoring it daily. Sometimes, it's an issue and sometimes not, but it hasn't kept me from going out there every five days."

For a guy nicknamed "Bear" — a direct translation from the Japanese word "Kuma" — Iwakuma's smiling face and slender 6-foot-3, 210-pound frame does little to look the part. He's been unofficially called "The Gentle Bear" and "The Kinder Bear" for years in Japan, but merely smiles and shrugs when asked about the suitability of his moniker.

"To have a nickname is a good sign," he said. "It's a good indication something is going right. If it's easy for guys to remember, then I'm comfortable with it."

The way he's pitching, he soon won't need a nickname to be remembered.

Geoff Baker: 206-464-8286 or gbaker@seattletimes.com.

On Twitter @gbakermariners

One-two punch
Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma have shined this season, but the rest of the rotation has been a disaster.
Pitcher W-L ERA
Hernandez 5-3 2.07
Iwakuma 5-1 2.37
Other 3 starters* 6-16 6.75
* Joe Saunders, Brandon Maurer, Aaron Harang. All statistics through Friday's game.

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