Sep 18, 2013; Detroit, MI, USA; Seattle Mariners starting pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma (18) walks off the field after the top of the fourth inning against the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
When the Seattle Mariners signed Robinson Cano, many fans (myself included) speculated that it was just the start of a big effort to make the 2014 team a contender, no matter the cost. Instead the Mariners went on to spend $20 million on a DH and a closer, and… that was it, essentially. The M’s went into the season with youth everywhere, most of which had (and still has) yet to see big league success. Not just on the position player side, but everywhere.
The Mariners employed a particularly thin strategy in building their 2014 team. The rotation consisted of two talented veterans, which is sort of crazy, given how unpredictable young starters can be and that the team insisted they were trying to contend. One of them got hurt, and all of a sudden the number two starter was a guy who probably profiled best as the number five, a la those Jason Vargas rotations from years of old. This team required 100% health and everyone hitting their ceiling in order to contend. That was never going to happen, but enough about the big picture: Hisashi Iwakuma, absolutely necessary number two starter and one of the team’s few excellent players, is back. He pitched okay, and the Mariners won.
When I say Iwakuma pitched okay, I mean he pitched 6 2/3 innings on only 81 pitches in his season debut, flashing efficiency and his signature dominant splitter. Man, that splitter. Still the best in the game, that splitter. But his day wasn’t great, as shown by a walk and six hits, three of which went for extra bases. One of those extra base hits was a home run, and Iwakuma’s always been a little homer prone. The shot was from Chris Carter, and homers are basically the only thing he does, so it’s not like he went and got taken out of the park by Ben Revere or something. That was also the second to last batter Iwakuma faced, so make of that what you will.
Could Iwakuma’s debut have gone better? Sure, of course it could have. He didn’t give up a ton of hits, but he did allow plenty of hard contact, and the strikeouts weren’t there in full. A homer’s a homer, regardless of whether it was hit by a Carlos Peguero type or a Jamey Carroll type. Iwakuma’s hits allowed were mostly clustered together, and that’s largely random. His final line looks bad, but really he didn’t throw all that poorly. And somehow, he left with the team all but assured a win.
Houston got two in the third on a triple, single, sac fly sequence. Seattle got one in the sixth by going triple (Stefen Romero) and single (Cano). Things looked mellow until the top of the seventh, when the game became absolutely crazy. Dallas Keuchel, excellent (of course) to that point, walked Justin Smoak, Cole Gillespie, and Brad Miller before getting the hook. He walked the first two guys on eight pitches! He was replaced by some nameless, faceless Houston relief arm, and in the process Lloyd McClendon was tossed for blowing up at home plate umpire James Hoye, who he accused of giving the new pitcher too much time to warm up. Um, whatever, Lloyd. The skipper watched the ensuing insanity from the visiting clubhouse. He somehow avoided a heart attack.
Okay, so Jose Cisnero isn’t entirely nameless and faceless – he has a family that loves him, but other than that he’s a relief pitcher on the Houston Astros. He entered with the bases loaded and walked Mike Zunino. He walked Mike Zunino! That’s the same Mike Zunino who had yet to draw an unintentional walk all season. The same exact Mike Zunino who we whisper excitedly about whenever he works a seven-pitch at-bat. Michael Saunders doubled, scoring two. Romero singled, scoring Zunino, who actually drew a walk oh my god. Robinson Cano singled, scoring another, and Romero found himself out at third because he’s not too hot at this MLB thing. Corey Hart flew out, and that was it for Cisnero, if that’s even his real name.
Maybe you’ve heard the name Raul Valdes before. Maybe you went to high school together, or maybe he’s that kid who showed up on your porch and sold you those kitchen knives. Perhaps he cleans your windows and gutters. Or perhaps he’s a relief pitcher on the Houston Astros. Kyle Seager doubled off him, scoring Cano and reaching third on an errant throw. Justin Smoak homered, unleashing an onslaught of recycled MLB.com puns. Smoak shouldn’t be starting because he’s bad, but he should be banned from baseball forever because the people who write the headlines just can’t be saved. Gillespie lined out, ending the inning. Which was unexpected, even what with the whole “he’s Cole Gillespie” angle.
The bottom of the frame saw Iwakuma return to the mound with a shiny new seven run lead, which was probably unnecessary given the long time he had sat on the bench. Enter the Carter homer, followed by a single from Marwin Gonzalez, who sounds like a particularly not-powerful sorcerer. In came Dominic Leone, perhaps four batters too late, and out of the park went a home run off the bat of Jonathan Villar, who is a server at that pizza place down the street. Actual gnome Jose Altuve walked and stole second, scoring on a Dexter Fowler single. In came Joe Beimel, who threw three pitches before Zunino caught Fowler trying to take second. The Astros made out number three on the bases because of course they did.
At 9-6, the game was uncomfortably alive. Enter Yoervis Medina, who allowed a double, triple, and single for a pair of runs to make it 9-8. He plunked Gonzalez, and my goodness is Medina ever not a star. He then walked Villar, and it sucks when Danny Farquhar‘s not available. Fernando Rodney came in for the four out save and converted it, starting by retiring Altuve to end the eighth. Rodney is terrifying, and started the bottom of the ninth by hitting Fowler. But lo and behold, Rodney struck out Jason Castro and Matt Dominguez, ending things when Marc Krauss popped out.
At the onset of the seventh this game was 2-1. It was 9-2 three outs later and 9-8 an inning and a half after that. That’s an indictment of bad bullpens, but moreso it’s flat out insane. Iwakuma, of course, got the win, despite how his evening ended and all that the bullpen tried to do to this game. The Mariners gained one run in the differential column, despite that they led by seven with six outs to go. It’s Seattle, it’s Houston, it’s early May, and it was a genuinely nutso game of baseball featuring big offense and a returning star. Who’d have thought.
Tomorrow the Mariners have a chance to avoid losing another series to Houston, and my goodness wouldn’t that be nice. Brandon Maurer pitches against Colin McHugh, so maybe a win is a bit much to ask for. Remember McHugh, who made his season debut against Seattle and was super good? He pitched again, against the A’s, and was even better. His success looks more Jesse Chavez than it does Aaron Harang, which is to say Houston may have accidentally found something awesome here. Then again, it was just two starts, and weird things happen every day in baseball. So there’s your compelling story to watch. Early game at 11:10, tune in, because you always do and you are a creature of habit. And because baseball is good. Sometimes. We hope.