SEATTLE – During his team’s trip to New York, 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 6-1 record and 2.13 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.
“Going out there with a positive attitude and expecting good things to happen is so important in this game. … 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.
“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.”
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