By Shannon Drayer
Hisashi Iwakuma being a finalist for the American League Cy Young Award seemed like icing on the cake of a great first full season. I don't think anyone expected an upset win over 21-game winner Max Scherzer. I don't think many expected to see him in the top three regardless of how deserving he was. It would seem he couldn't be any more under the radar, but his pitching spoke for itself and was recognized, making this a great starting point perhaps for his 2014 campaign.
Iwakuma is home in Japan getting ready to begin preparations for that campaign, but he was reached by the Mariners earlier this week and with help from interpreter Antony Suzuki we were able to get his thoughts on the honor of being nominated.
"Yes, I am very proud and happy with what I have established here in two years," he said. "I have learned a lot and it has been quite an experience. I started my career here in the big league as a reliever and worked my way up. There is more to learn down the road and more to prove as well, so I look forward to the future."
Iwakuma has been one of the few success stories for the Mariners in the last few years. From his acquisition to being cautious with him coming off injury to re-signing him (which incidentally was probably the best free-agent signing in baseball last offseason), this couldn't have worked out better for the team.
In talking with Iwakuma both at and toward the end of last season, I got the feeling that behind the quiet and unassuming facade there was a competitiveness that was setting his sights high. Why not win a Cy Young? Why not steal some of the spotlight from his countryman, Yu Darvish? He did it in 2008 in Japan; perhaps he could do it again.
Iwakuma is coming off career highs (both here and in Japan) in strikeouts and innings pitched. It is worth noting that it wasn't all smooth sailing for him as he pitched with a blister for the first couple of months of the season and at times had to be pulled from games earlier than his pitching would dictate. We could see better next year.
The key to what we saw this year was the preparation. With a year in MLB under his belt he knew how to better prepare for a full season. As a result we saw him throw 18 more innings than he ever had before. He knows that preparation was effective. Now he would like to take it a step further.
"Last season was my first full season as a starter," he said. "To be successful, you need to maintain your performance for a long period of time. That said, I will need to come up with similar or better results that last season and that is what I look forward to doing."
The work has already begun.
"I have gradually started to prepare/condition myself physically for 2014. I have not thrown a ball yet since finishing the season but will start soon. I look forward to preparing my arm early like I did last spring and be ready to go strong by the start of spring training to stay healthy for another season."
In addition to his training, Iwakuma has been doing good as well. I was happy to see this final quote from Japan.
"I have a baseball clinic coming up on the 23rd of November in Ishinomaki, Sendai, where we had the natural disaster," he said, referring to the earthquake and tsunami in 2011. "During this time of the year, I like to take my time to give back to the city I played for that supported me for many years and give spirit to the people and kids that dream about baseball."
Iwakuma was one of the three Mariners players who along with manager Eric Wedge and members of the Athletics put on a clinic in Ishinomaki in 2012. The children were thrilled to see him and followed him from station to station, often grabbing onto his jersey or even taking his hand. They no doubt will be thrilled to see him again.