PEORIA, Ariz. – In spring trainings past, Hisashi Iwakuma’s days were planned to the minute with an almost compulsive diligence and structure.
Disciplined to his craft and experienced to know exactly what he needed/wanted to do to prepare for the upcoming season, Iwakuma rarely had free moments to himself other and a quiet cup of coffee in the clubhouse following breakfast. There was always running, strengthening, stretching and drills to work on his mechanics to go with the regular on-field workouts and throwing programs. He was always doing something to get ready.
For now, he’s been forced to follow a different plan – one that isn’t quite his own. After having shoulder surgery at the end of last season, Iwakuma is still working through his recovery from the procedure. It can be a frustratingly slow incremental process. Such is the routine for a player recovering from surgery or injury during spring. While everyone else is preparing for Cactus League and later regular-season games, Iwakuma is just trying to build up enough strength to actually throw off the mound.
“Overall, I feel pretty good,” he said through his interpreter, Antony Suzuki. “I’ve only played catch for three weeks now. So obviously it’s still sore inside because I’m still building strength, but that’s normal. I get that when I normally go through minicamp. I just need to keep resting and building strength and go from there.”
According to Iwakuma, the “debridement” procedure performed by Dr. Keith Meister in Dallas on Sept. 27 was just an arthroscopic clean up to remove some scar tissues and loose bodies in the shoulder that seemed to be causing the discomfort and inflammation.
“No repairs, nothing was torn,” he said.
And yet, there is still the unknown of “will it ever feel the same?”
“I feel better,” he said. “But at the same time, I feel some anxiety. I’m going to be honest with you guys. I did have the cleaning done and we’re all hoping for a full recovery, but you have to fight the situation and fear.”
The surgery capped off a disappointing 2017 season. Following a 2016 season in which he tied a career high with 33 starts and threw 199 innings, Iwakuma started slowly last season, going 0-2 with a 4.35 ERA in six starts. He was placed on the disabled list on May 7 with shoulder inflammation and never returned despite repeated attempts that included rehab starts with Triple-A Tacoma.
“It was tough,” he said. “It was very frustrating. I wanted to come back at the end, and I just couldn’t come back. I didn’t do my job. The least I could’ve done was come back and help the team in some way. I didn’t contribute. I let down the fans. I worked hard in those four months of rehab and I’m still going through rehab right now and hoping all this hard work will pay off in the end. And all that frustration and hardship I went through last year will pay off this year.”
The regret and failures of 2017 provided the motivation to sign a minor league contract to return to the Mariners in the offseason instead for looking for another opportunity as a free agent.
“To be honest, I didn’t think about signing with any other teams,” he said. “This is the team I wanted to play for. This is the city I wanted to play for. And these are the teammates I wanted. And these are the fans I wanted to play in front of. When they offered me the invitation, I was very excited to get that chance again. I need to pay it back and make up for the loss and the work that I didn’t put in last year. That’s all I have in mind. That’s why I wanted to come back to Seattle.”
The process to get Iwakuma back to Seattle and pitching in regular seasons games could be a lengthy one. He is playing catch out to 120 feet at 70-80 percent effort. He isn’t scheduled to throw off the mound until the first week of March, meaning there’s a good chance he may have to remain at extended spring training to complete his throwing program and then pitch with Tacoma to prove himself ready.
“I’m working hard every day to make the team when we break spring training on the 29th of March,” he said. “If I have the chance, that’s my goal. If not, we’ll just have to listen to what my body says and go from there. You want to make the team, but at the same time you don’t want to rush.”
To help aid in his recovery and performance when he returns to the mound, Iwakuma trimmed about 12-15 pounds off his frame through conditioning and giving up rice – his favorite food. He was never heavy, but he felt this was a necessary change.
“This being my seventh season in the majors,” he said. “I’ve done a lot of weight training with James Clifford and I feel like I’ve gotten much stronger. But at the same time, when you get stronger you give up a few things like flexibility and fluidity … and that’s what I wanted to bring back. That’s always been my style to get that range of motion back and have the looseness of the arm and body in general. When you think about that long process of a season, you obviously need to be light and you need to be fit and flexible.”
After a distinguished career in Japan followed by seven seasons with the Mariners, compiling a 63-39 record in 150 appearances and career 3.42 ERA, it’s easy to wonder why the 36-year-old Iwakuma wants to endure this uncertain path with little guarantee of getting back to where he wants to be. He admitted to considering retirement and giving his body a permanent rest from all those innings logged, but he wasn’t ready to walk away without at least trying one more time. He has his reasons.
“You have a special attachment to the city and the team and the guys and the fans,” he said. “It was a big motivation to try and come back.”
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