PEORIA, Ariz. – Spring training is officially under way with Seattle’s pitchers and catchers holding their first workout.
The center of attention for the brief Sunday morning session at the Peoria Sports Complex was the team’s newest import from Japan.
Right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma did a small amount of running and a little defensive work. He will throw off the mound for the first time on Monday.
“It felt really easy,” he said through an interpreter, “because in Japan we spend like two hours for the warmup in Japan. We have a lot of stuff to do, even the fundamentals.”
The Mariners and Iwakuma agreed to a one-year, $1.5 million contract last month, plus a little over $3 million in incentives. He joins a franchise already popular in Japan because of the presence of that country’s superstar, Ichiro.
Seattle started spring training a week ahead of other teams because it will open its season early, on March 28 in Japan against Oakland. The Athletics chose not to begin spring training early. Their first workout at their facility in Phoenix is scheduled for next Sunday.
Some 30 Japanese reporters and photographers chronicled every move by the 6-foot-3, 180-pound pitcher as he jogged lightly, then fielded some balls off the mound.
“This is the first time to wear the uniform,” Iwakuma said, “and I’m really excited to play with the pitchers and the catchers and the fielders. It’s really exciting and I had fun for the practice today.”
There is another new addition from Japan in Seattle’s camp. The Mariners signed shortstop Munenori Kawasaki to a minor league contract and he is a non-roster invitee.
“The game’s really changed,” Seattle manager Eric Wedge said. “It really is an international game and you are combing the international waters. You’re not crossing anybody off. Obviously we have strong ties with Japan and Ichiro’s led the way with that. I think it’s just healthy. We’ve got Iwakuma in camp, we’ve got Kawasaki in camp, and Ichi will be showing up pretty soon as well. I think it’s very healthy for the sport in general.”
Iwakuma played with Ichiro on Japan’s World Baseball Classic championship team in 2009, where he was the starter in the deciding game.
That competition followed Iwakuma’s best season, 2008, when he went 21-4 with a 1.87 ERA in 28 starts for Tohoku Rakuten. He allowed just three home runs that season in 202 2-3 innings, earning the Japanese equivalent of the Cy Young Award.
Iwakuma has said the World Baseball Classic experience in the United States fueled his desire to come to the major leagues. It nearly happened a year ago, when the A’s reportedly were ready to give $19.1 million to Rakuten just to have the right to sign him. Talks broke down with the A’s, though, and Iwakuma returned to his Japanese club last season, when a shoulder injury limited him to 17 starts. He was 6-7 with a 2.42 ERA.
The Mariners have said they are confident the shoulder has healed, although the velocity of his fastball has dipped a bit to the low 90s. Iwakuma is a control pitcher anyway, relying on groundouts rather than blowing his fastball past anyone.
“He had a lot of success in Japan as a starting pitcher,” Wedge said. “He trusts his stuff, throws multiple pitches for strikes and throws the ball over. He’s aggressive. He got a little dinged up last year so we’re hopeful he’s going to be healthy this year for us.”
Iwakuma became a free agent after last season, and he signed with the Mariners following a December trip to Seattle that included a long dinner with general manager Jack Zduriencik, who convinced the pitcher how much he was wanted in Seattle.
After he finished his workout at the field at the far end of the complex, Iwakuma stopped again and again along the way back to the clubhouse signing autographs, surrounded by the Japanese photographers snapping away.
“This is the first time to see a lot of people around me,” he said, “to talk and give them a signature.”
Will he always be so accommodating as the spring goes on?
“I’ll try to as much as I can,” Iwakuma said, “as long as I have the time.”