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Veteran Mariners right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma learns to adjust

Seattle Mariners pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma throws during spring training baseball practice, Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2017, in Peoria, Ariz. (Charlie Riedel / Associated Press)
Seattle Mariners pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma throws during spring training baseball practice, Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2017, in Peoria, Ariz. (Charlie Riedel / Associated Press)
By Bob Dutton Tacoma News Tribune

PEORIA, Ariz. – As he nears his 36th birthday, Seattle Mariners right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma understands the need to adjust is now an ongoing process.

He is entering his sixth big-league season after 11 years in his native Japan.

“Every year is different,” he said. “You look at it, it’s always different. You have to be flexible in your mind. You have to be able to make adjustments each and every year.

“Having the confidence to make that adjustment has helped me a lot. It’s allowed me to think different ways. That’s how I’ve looked at it, and that’s how I’m going to look at it going forward as well.”

Iwakuma is coming off a season in which he matched a career high with 33 starts. He also won 16 games, a big-league high that he exceeded only in 2008 when he went 21-4 at Rakuten in Japan’s Pacific League.

That durability helped quell some concerns.

Injuries limited Iwakuma to 48 starts over the previous two years before medical concerns scuppered a tentative three-year contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers as a free agent after the 2015 season.

When the Dodgers voided the deal, Iwakuma returned to the Mariners on a contract that contained only one guaranteed season for $12 million but provided him with vesting options for two more years based on innings pitched.

By pitching 199 innings last season, Iwakuma cashed another $2.5 million in performance bonuses and triggered a $14 million option for this season.

Further, he needs only 125 innings this year to guarantee a $15 million option for 2018 – provided he doesn’t end the season on the disabled list because of an injured shoulder.

Even so, it wasn’t all positive last season for Iwakuma.

His 4.12 ERA was more than one-half of a run higher than in any of his previous big-league seasons. He gave up a career-worst 9.9 hits per nine innings. His strikeout rate dropped significantly and his walk rate edged up.

Some of that likely stemmed from simple bad luck.

Opponents batted .315 last season against Iwakuma on balls in play, which marked a spike from a .272 rate over his four previous seasons. The major-league average last season was .300.

Any regression to the mean figures to help.

But the Mariners also believe Iwakuma wore down late in the season, in part, because of a higher workload than in the two previous seasons. He pitched just 143 innings in 2015, including his minor-league rehab appearances.

Iwakuma addressed that concern this spring by reporting earlier than usual to the club’s year-round complex to begin his disciplined regimen and in declining an opportunity to pitch for Japan in the World Baseball Classic.

“Kuma takes his offseason as serious as anybody,” manager Scott Servais said. “I think he wants to show people that he can carry that workload. It’s hard. It’s hard for him, especially where he’s at in his career.

“We probably got more out of him (last year) than we expected, which is great. We certainly needed it. He wants to back it up again this year.”

Bypassing the WBC will allow Iwakuma to ease his way through spring training’s early weeks rather than making an early push to be ready for Japan’s opener against Cuba on March 7 in Tokyo.

“Go slow,” he explained. “Gradually move forward. Not rush. Stay patient. Every year is a challenge. Every year is different.

“We have a big challenge coming up this season with this team, and we all look forward to it. We have a lot of hopes for this season.”

Adjustments are already anticipated.

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