This column written by John Underwood, a featured contributor to Oregon Sports News
What do Hisashi Iwakuma, Kyugi Fujikawa, and Hiroki Kuroda have in common? Yes, there are Japanese pitchers playing in the Majors. They also wear 18 on their back. Coincidence? No.
The number 18 is a significant number in Japanese baseball. Greats like Tsuneo Horiuchi and Masumi Kuwata, both of the Yomiuri Giants, wore 18. The number eventually became the Giants ace’s number.
Currently there are 9 Japanese pitchers playing in the Show. Seven of them are wearing numbers between 11 (Darvish) and 19 (Tanaka). When the overhyped Daisuke (Dice K) Matsuzaka made the move to MLB to play for the Boston Red Sox in 2007 he also wore 18, now he is wearing 16 with the New York Mets.
New York Yankee Masahiro Tanaka missed on 18 when he signed with the Yankees last year because Hiroki Kuroda arrived first and is currently wearing it. Strange that Boston’s Koji Uehara took 19 because he arrived a year after Dice K left for the Mets leaving 18 vacant.
Of all the current Japanese players wearing 18, the Seattle Mariners Hisashi Iwakuma is the only one who can say he is an ace with a straight face. Playing in his third season with the Mariners, Iwakuma has been excelling as the team’s #2 pitcher on a really good rotation.
Statistically Iwakuma is enjoying his finest season in the majors. The 6’3 right-hander trails only King Felix and Chris Sale in WHIP. He leads the American League in walks allowed with a microscopic .8 per 9 innings pitched. He’s on pace to eclipse 200 innings pitched for the second consecutive year. He owns a 9 and 6 record, but wins and losses are a bad stat to judge Mariners pitchers. Just ask King Felix.
Both King Felix and Iwakuma are pitching lights out. What makes this more impressive is that they have to walk a tight rope every time they pitch because there is little room for error due to the woeful offense.
In 2012, the Mariners won the bid to bring Iwakuma to the States. After spending the first couple of months is the bullpen he got moved to the rotation and hasn’t looked back. Last year, his first full year as a starter, Iwakuma made the All Star team.
Mariners GM, Jack Zduriencik inked Iwakuma following the 2012 for below market value $6.5 million and a team option valued at $7 million. Iwakuma is only 33 years old and I could see the Zduriencik voiding the option year and signing him for 3 years for about $40 million.
The Mariners are entering the final quarter of the season. They have a top five rotation and defense with the best bullpen in the game. If newly acquired Austin Jackson and Kendrys Morales bat like they have in the past – look out. The Mariners could be a dangerous team in the postseason.