ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — They were once teammates at home. They are now opponents in a foreign land. They will always remain friends.
And they should have pitched against each other Tuesday night at Safeco Field. But Mother Nature apparently didn’t want to see two of the best pitchers in the American League meet when the Yankees open a three-game series with the Mariners.
The unique pitching duel would have been the talk of baseball. And across the Pacific Ocean in their native Japan, it would have been the talk of the country when the Yankees’ Masahiro Tanaka squared off against his friend, former teammate and mentor in the Mariners’ Hisashi Iwakuma.
“That’s a matchup I would pay to see, and I hope the ballpark is packed, because I think that’s going to be a dandy,” Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon said.
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But the Yankees game in Kansas City was rained out Monday. Manager Joe Girardi decided to ruin the fun by pushing back his scheduled starter for the day, Vidal Nuno, to Tuesday and Tanaka to Wednesday.
In their playing days in Japan with the Rakuten Golden Eagles, Iwakuma, 33, was an established All-Star pitcher when Tanaka, 25, was coming up. Iwakuma worked with and tutored the talented young pitcher, following the Japanese mentor-protege relationship of the senpai (Iwakuma) and the kohai (Tanaka).
“We’ve always been on the same side until a couple years ago,” Iwakuma said through interpreter Antony Suzuki on Sunday. “You look at him and he’s a teammate, he was part of the family. You used to root for the guy and now you’re going against him.”
The Yankees signed Tanaka to a $155 million, seven-year contract this offseason along with paying a $20 million posting fee to Rakuten, outbidding several teams in the process. He has been everything they had hoped for, if not more. Tanaka has posted a 9-1 record with a 2.02 earned-run average, striking out 92 batters in 841/3 innings.
“I’m not very surprised,” Iwakuma said. “I knew he was going to be a good pitcher here. He knows how to make adjustments on the mound and in games. I think this is him.”
Iwakuma could see that when Tanaka was a young but unpolished pitcher with Rakuten.
“He always had a high ceiling,” Iwakuma said. “As he matured, he’s gotten better with his command and his pitching in general.”
Iwakuma didn’t have quite the fanfare or salary as Tanaka when he signed a $1.5 million, one-year contract with the Mariners before the 2012 season. After battling arm fatigue early in that season, he had a strong second half, posting an 8-4 record in 16 starts with a 2.65 ERA. It was good enough for the Mariners to sign him to a $14 million, two-year contract after the season. He rewarded them with a brilliant 2013 season, finishing third in the Cy Young voting after posting a 14-6 record with a 2.66 ERA and being named an All-Star.
“This guy is a surgeon,” McClendon said. “He knows what he’s doing and what he wants to do to execute with certain guys.”
And he’s nearing full strength after missing spring training with a strained tendon on the middle finger of his throwing hand. He has a 4-2 record with a 2.66 ERA in seven starts.
“He knows he’s real close to where he needs to be,” McClendon said.
Had they pitched against each other, the old friends would’ve grabbed dinner during the series. Now an opponent, Iwakuma might even offer his teammates a scouting report on his friend.
“I do have some tips, but that’s top secret,” he said with a chuckle.
After two brilliant starts in a seven-day span, Felix Hernandez was named the American League player of the week. He posted a 1-0 record with a 1.29 ERA, allowing just two runs in 14 innings, surrendering 12 hits, but striking out 23 batters.
“It’s pretty good,” he said. “It’s nice to get awards.”
Minor-league first baseman Ji-Man Choi has been activated off the suspended list and sent to Class AA Jackson. He was in the lineup for the Generals and batting cleanup. Choi was suspended for 50 games for testing positive for methandienone, a performance-enhancing substance. Choi denied taking the drug knowingly but accepted the suspension. He was hitting .394 in 10 games for the Rainiers.
To make room on the 40-man roster, the Mariners transferred left-hander James Paxton from the 15-day disabled list to the 60-day disabled list. Because Paxton was placed on the DL on April 9, his 60 days were up Sunday. So he can be activated whenever he’s ready to join the active roster, which could be in about three weeks.
Ryan Divish: 206-464-2373 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @RyanDivish