HOUSTON — It may not have been the type of All-Star-caliber outing Hisashi Iwakuma delivered with such regularity last season, but his first outing of 2014 was better than many the Mariners have received so far this season.
Iwakuma pitched 62
3 innings, giving up four runs on six hits with a walk and three strikeouts to pick up his first win of the season. Not bad for a guy who wasn’t allowed to throw a baseball for the first six weeks of the season, endured a deliberately cautious recovery program and made only one rehab start before stepping on the mound Saturday.
“He threw the ball extremely well,” manager Lloyd McClendon said. “I was very pleased.”
Iwakuma was also pleased with his first outing.
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“I feel relieved right now,” he said. “I was very excited before the game. I was able to focus during the game and I was able to pitch my game. I’m very happy right now.”
Iwakuma worked two scoreless innings before giving up two runs in the third on a triple to Jonathan Villar and a sacrifice fly to Jose Altuve.
But the Mariners rewarded his return with more run support than they’ve given any other starter this season. They scored nine runs, including eight in the top of the seventh.
But after the long inning on the bench, Iwakuma came back out and gave up a solo homer to Chris Carter and then was lifted after giving up a two-out single to Marwin Gonzalez.
“I was able to pitch well and I was able to command both sides of the plate with all of my pitches,” he said. “I left a couple pitches up, and they took advantage of them.”
All the runs were nice in the seventh, but the long inning on the bench seemed to sidetrack Iwakuma and his rhythm.
“I’m sure it did somewhat because he was really in a groove and throwing the ball really well,” McClendon said. “He was really efficient with his pitches. That’s the tough part of it.”
Iwakuma wouldn’t use it as an excuse.
“No, not really,” he said of the negative effect. “I was getting loose inside. I kept my shoulder loose and I kept my body warm.”
Still, it was a solid debut and a much-needed outing.
“Kuma looked like Kuma of old, right off the bat,” catcher Mike Zunino said. “I know he needs to iron out some stuff. But I thought his breaking ball and split were great today.”
Abraham Almonte was not in the lineup after struggling Friday night, going hitless and committing two errors.
McClendon has grown weary of discussing Almonte’s struggles and questions about his playing time.
“That’s why he’s sitting because it’s not working,” McClendon said. “It’s that simple. I don’t try to sugarcoat anything. He’s not playing because he’s not producing. He’s not playing up to his capabilities.”
Almonte is hitting .198 with a league-high 40 strikeouts and a .293 on-base percentage. He has to produce to play. But he has to play to produce. McClendon simply can’t play him anymore.
How is Almonte handling the struggles?
“Listen, it’s not easy at this level for any young kid,” he said. “I’ve been there and I know it can get tough, particularly when you aren’t producing the way you are capable of producing. I’m sure he’s not feeling good about things right now.”
At some point, the Mariners will have to make a decision with Almonte about sending him to Class AAA to play every day to get back on track instead of trying to figure it out at the big-league level. But he isn’t sure when that will be.