Hisashi Iwakuma's no-hitter provides bright spot for struggling Mariners
In what’s been a trying season to date for both team and pitcher, the Mariners’ Hisashi Iwakuma provided a bright spot by spinning the season's fourth no-hitter on Wednesday afternoon, walking three but otherwise keeping the Orioles' offense silent in a 3–0 victory. Oddly enough, it's the first no-hitter by an AL pitcher since the last one by a Mariner: Felix Hernandez's perfect game against the Rays on Aug. 15, 2012. NL pitchers had authored the previous 12 in that span, including the three this season by the Giants’ Chris Heston (June 10 versus the Mets), the Nationals’ Max Scherzer (June 20 versus the Pirates) and the Rangers' Cole Hamels (July 25 versus the Cubs), who did it with the Phillies prior to his trade to Texas.
The 34-year-old Iwakuma, who missed two and a half months earlier this season with a strained latissimus dorsi, needed 116 pitches to finish the job—his first complete game in 88 starts spread over his four major-league seasons. He didn't allow a batter to reach base until he walked Manny Machado to lead off the fourth, doing so on four straight balls after starting the encounter 0–2. Two outs later, he issued a five-pitch walk to Chris Davis as well, but escaped the jam by striking out Jimmy Paredes, one of his seven K's for the afternoon. He walked Jonathan Schoop to lead off the eighth, but erased him when Caleb Joseph grounded a 3–1 sinker to shortstop Ketel Marte to begin an inning-ending double play. His sinker, which he threw 57 times according to Brooks Baseball, was responsible for eight of his career-high 12 ground-ball outs.
The double play, which capped a 17-pitch eighth inning, helped preserve Iwakuma's shot at finishing the job, as did Kyle Seager's over-the-shoulder catch of David Lough's foul ball to start the ninth, the defensive gem of the game:
Iwakuma had thrown 107 pitches through eight innings, 11 short of his stateside high, set just five days ago in a seven-inning effort against the Rangers. He needed just nine pitches to work the ninth—five to retire Lough, then three more as Machado grounded to the sure-handed Seager (the only Mariner who was also in King Felix’ perfecto) and finally Gerardo Parra's first-pitch fly ball to centerfielder Austin Jackson, his only one-pitch out of the day:
Iwakuma’s no-hitter was the fifth in the Mariners' 39-season history, following those of Randy Johnson (June 2, 1990 versus the Tigers), Chris Bosio (April 22, 1993 versus the Red Sox), Kevin Millwood and five relievers (June 8, 2012 versus the Dodgers) and Hernandez. It was the fourth no-hitter in the history of Safeco Field, which opened in mid-1999, following those of the White Sox' Philip Humber (a perfect game on April 21, 2012), Millwood and company and Hernandez. That's the most of any ballpark in that span; Atlanta's Turner Field, Boston's Fenway Park, Chicago's U.S. Cellular Field and San Francisco's AT&T Park have each hosted three.
The four no-hitters of 2015 are one shy of last year’s total, but still off the pace of 2012, when there were seven thrown. Baltimore, which came into the day with the league’s sixth-lowest batting average against righties (.251) as well as the second-highest strikeout rate against them (22.3%), hadn’t been no-hit since the Red Sox' Clay Buchholz blanked it on Sept. 1, 2007; none of the current Orioles were even on the roster then.
For both Iwakuma and the Mariners, this was a clear high point in a trying season. The pitcher was roughed up for a 6.61 ERA in three April starts before landing on the disabled list with a Grade 1 lat strain. Since returning on July 6, he's been much improved, with a 3.05 ERA and a 47–9 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 56 innings across eight starts. Only once in his last seven starts has he allowed more than three runs, while five times he's held opponents to two or fewer. Alas, after challenging for a playoff spot last year, the Mariners are just 54–61 this year and in danger of their fifth sub-.500 season out of six.
Prior to coming to the Mariners, Iwakuma spent 11 years in the Japanese Pacific League with the Osaka Kintetsu Buffaloes (2001–04) and Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles (2005–2011), so his no-hitter put him in even more select company. He's just the second Japanese-born pitcher to throw a no-hitter in MLB, after Hideo Nomo. The trailblazing Nomo threw two during his 12 stateside seasons, one for the Dodgers (Sept. 17, 1996 versus the Rockies) and one for the Red Sox (April 4, 2001 against the Orioles).
In addition to his sinker (which averaged 88.8 mph), Iwakuma relied upon his slider (23 pitches), splitter (17) and four-seamer (15, with an average velocity of 90.9). His 19 swings and misses matched his stateside high, set in a July 30, 2012 outing against the Blue Jays in which he struck out a career-best 13. On Wednesday, his sinker, slider and four-seamer were each responsible for five swings and misses; of his seven strikeouts, six were swinging, three apiece at the sinker and four-seamer, and all of them out of the strike zone.
Iwakuma got ahead of Orioles hitters all afternoon, throwing first-pitch strikes to 20 of the 29 batters he faced; only in the third inning, facing Davis and Paredes, did he start back-to-back hitters off with a ball. The two-walk fourth, when he needed 22 pitches, and the eighth were the only two innings he went beyond 15 pitches. He needed just 11 in the first, and then nine in the second, third and ninth. That said, the O's hitters did make him work, as all nine hitters faced at least 10 pitches on the afternoon, with Parra (11 pitches in four PA) and Paredes (10 pitches in three PA) the only ones to average fewer than four pitches per plate appearance.
Iwakuma got all the support he needed from his offense long before the no-hitter looked like a possibility. The Mariners put up two runs in the third inning against Orioles starter Kevin Gausman via a one-out Marte walk, a wild pitch, an RBI double by Franklin Gutierrez and an RBI single by Robinson Cano. They added another run in the fourth via doubles by Jackson and catcher Jesus Sucre.
And while it didn’t show up in the box score, Iwakuma got a bit of extra support—in honoring a superstition, at least—from manager Lloyd McClendon:
McClendon said he had to pee since fifth inning. But he didn't want to violate time-honored baseball tradition: You don't pee during no-no— Larry Stone (@StoneLarry) August 12, 2015
In the words of the great Steve Rushin, “[McClendon] earned a hold.”