ATLANTA – Hisashi Iwakuma returned to the strike-throwing, out-getting machine that the Mariners have become accustomed to seeing.
Iwakuma tossed seven shutout innings Wednesday, giving up six hits and striking out seven, and his teammates scratched across just enough run support to eke out a 2-0 win and complete a two-game sweep of the Atlanta Braves at Turner Field.
Seattle earned its fifth straight win, tying a season high, and raised its record to 31-28, the first time since April 11 it has been three games over .500.
“Nothing’s changed,” manager Lloyd McClendon said of his team’s recent surge. “I like my team. I like the way they go about their business. They are very gritty. They prepare very well. I’m very pleased with that. We’ve got our warts. We’ve got our challenges. But we do OK.”
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Iwakuma (4-2) was better than OK in a bounce-back performance. He took losses in his last two starts, giving up a combined nine runs in 13 innings pitched. No one would score on him Wednesday.
“I thought he threw the ball really well,” catcher Mike Zunino said. “He kept everything in the strike zone, he worked ahead and he was down in the strike zone. And when he is down in the zone, that’s when he’s the most effective.”
It wasn’t complete domination. Iwakuma found himself in a minor jam in the first inning. After giving up a single to Jason Heyward to start the game, Justin Upton laced a two-out single into right field to put runners at first and third. But Iwakuma calmly got Evan Gattis to ground into a fielder’s choice to end the inning. Heyward would be the only runner to reach third base. Iwakuma would allow just one other runner to reach second base in the game.
“He wasn’t as sharp as normal,” McClendon said. “He got up away with some pitches today that he normally doesn’t leave up the in zone.”
One of the reasons he was able to do that was increased velocity. His fastball was up a few ticks at 91-92 mph, similar to last season. It had been down around 88-89 in past starts.
Because he missed all of spring training with a strained tendon in his finger, Iwakuma is still trying to build arm strength and innings. The extra zip on his fastball is a sign that his strength is returning to normal. He admitted to feeling fatigued in his previous start in Seattle, but he felt strong Wednesday.
“I think my arm is starting to get better and better,” Iwakuma said through translator Antony Suzuki. “I think the heat did help. But this is my seventh start and I’m starting to feel better and better. I was able to pitch low in the zone, and it had more life and I was able to take advantage of it.”
Iwakuma needed to be good because the Mariners didn’t do much against Braves starter Mike Minor, who struck out 10 batters in seven innings. Seattle scored its only run off him in the fourth inning on a single to left by Cole Gillespie.
“I’m just getting a little more opportunity now, and I’m starting to get into a rhythm,” said Gillespie, who had two hits Wednesday and has five hits in his last 10 at-bats. “I’m not trying to do too much at the plate.”
The Mariners are getting key contributions from players like Gillespie, Stefan Romero, Endy Chavez and Willie Bloomquist, particularly when Robinson Cano missed four games with a bruised hand.
“We have to use our entire roster to do the best we can,” McClendon said. “We manage. Our guys do a great job. Like I’ve said before, we get our BB gun and we dodge their bullets and shoot them between the eyes.”
Seattle picked up an insurance run in the eighth inning. Romero tripled to right-center. Pinch runner James Jones scored on Kyle Seager’s ground-ball single to right.
“Right out of the box I was thinking three,” said Romero.
With Iwakuma at 96 pitches on a hot and muggy day, McClendon turned to his bullpen for six straight outs. But this was Iwakuma’s day to show that, after a brief lull, he is back.
Ryan Divish: 206-464-2373
On Twitter: @RyanDivish