Hisashi Iwakuma’s Happy Day

Mariners pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma throws a no-hitter against the Baltimore Orioles at Safeco Field, Wednesday August 12, 2015. (Bettina Hansen / The Seattle Times)
Mariners pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma throws a no-hitter against the Baltimore Orioles at Safeco Field, Wednesday August 12, 2015. (Bettina Hansen / The Seattle Times)

No one was as big a fan of Hisashi Iwakuma as my grandmother. Every week when we got together for lunch, she would rave about the Mariners’ Japanese pitcher. Being Japanese herself, my grandma couldn’t have been more enthralled by a successful baseball player of our ethnic heritage plying his trade in Seattle.

“Why don’t they let Iwakuma play more?” she’d ask.

“Well,” I’d explain, “they only let starting pitchers play every five days. It’s just kind of how they do things in baseball. They don’t want him getting hurt. He plays as much as he’s allowed.”

“Hmm. I wish they’d let him play more.” My grandmother was not going to be appeased by the silliness of a five-man rotation.

When she passed away in September, I was upset with her favorite baseball team. She had wanted for years to see this ballclub succeed, watching every game along the way, win or lose. But following the Mariners seemed to be an exercise in futility. They hadn’t made the postseason in over a decade. They typically battled for last place. And who knows how long it would be before the thought of a championship so much as crossed anyone’s mind.

I didn’t like the Mariners for a little while. They had let us down. Me, my grandma, all the other fans out there. They were always letting us down. I’d spent my entire life cheering for them, wearing their logo, buying tickets to see fringe big leaguers play major league ball. In the aftermath of my grandmother’s passing, all that frustration caught up with me. Screw those guys and their losing ways.

They won me back, though. They always do. When you love something, no matter what it may be, you can’t stay mad at it for long. And despite the fact I didn’t always like them, I still loved the Seattle Mariners.

They signed Nelson Cruz. They brought in hitters with track records. They didn’t relinquish a single top prospect in the process. They made themselves look like a squad to be reckoned with, one that might even contend for the World Series. My frustrations went away.

By June, though, we were all incensed once again.

Not only were the Mariners fighting to stay out of the cellar, they were doing so amidst inflated expectations. It would be one thing if we had anticipated this ineptitude, if we saw another 90-loss season on the horizon. But we hadn’t. We had visions of meaningful ballgames on our minds, visions that were quickly becoming delusions of grandeur.

We sulked through a miserable July. It was over. This team was toast. The annual run they seemed to parse together in the heat of the summer, the mad dash for relevance that often coincided with the All-Star break, never came to fruition. Fans began to lose interest. If one wasn’t struck by apathy, then ire boiled beneath a navy-and-teal façade. Even the most diehard Mariners proponents, myself included, couldn’t play pretend any longer: the 2015 M’s were nowhere near as good as everyone had hoped. And for lack of a better, stronger, more offensive word, it was truly disappointing.

So it was that the last remaining vestiges of an engaged fan base found themselves tuning into a Wednesday afternoon contest against the perpetually boring Baltimore Orioles on August the 12th. The hometown nine was coming off an inspiring extra-inning victory from the night before, the result of which had brought them six wins in their last 10 outings. They weren’t turning into world-beaters by any stretch of the imagination. But at least the M’s were, of late, performing better than average.

The aforementioned Iwakuma took the hill. He had been stellar in his recent starts, earning three wins to just one loss in six tries since returning from the disabled list in July. But prior to his bout with injury, the righty had scuffled mightily, incurring doubts from fans and pundits alike that his career was on the verge of needing life support. The season, to date, had been a mixed bag of hope and despair for Iwakuma.

The lanky six-foot-three-inch 34-year-old mixed a devastating splitter into his arsenal of shifty fastballs at the game’s outset. There were plenty of swings and misses from the visiting Orioles’ hitters. What they didn’t miss, they often drove into Safeco Field’s well-manicured turf, inducing 11 ground ball outs over a span of nine innings.

One by one, batters tried and failed to figure out the Mariners’ starter. When six innings had passed without a hit, eyebrows began to raise amongst a dispersed group of onlookers. Social media picked up the cause and the term “no hitter” suddenly became taboo, lest anyone jinx a potentially historic occasion.

The seventh inning breezed by. The eighth yielded a leadoff walk, which had a suddenly expansive crowd of remote oglers on the edge of their seats. But then a strikeout, followed by a textbook six-four-three double play and the threat was killed. Three outs away from the fifth no-hitter in Mariners history and the excitement was palpable.

David Lough, a 29-year-old journeyman outfielder, was the first Oriole to try his hand at solving Iwakuma in the ninth. Lough let one pitch go by, a ball, then another, this one a strike. With the count even at one-and-one, the Orioles’ nine-hole hitter let strike two pass without an offering, before evening the count anew by looking at ball two.

Finally, on pitch number five of the at-bat, Lough let fly with the bludgeon in his grip, connecting and sending a white, leather missile skyward towards the stadium’s vast canopy. Veering towards the first row of seats along the third base line, the wayward pop-up was pursued at full speed by Kyle Seager. With just one stride separating the third baseman from a meeting with the stands, the Gold Glove-winner opened his mitt and in dropped Lough’s foul ball, torso high. An over-the-shoulder snag with his back to the play, caught in-stride, no less. It was, without equal, the play of the game. And thanks to his teammate’s display of defense, Iwakuma was now just two outs away from history.

Manny Machado, Baltimore’s 23-year-old wunderkind, stepped to the plate next. A .300 hitter, Machado represented as big a threat as any to prevent the happy ending his foe was attempting to script. Unlike his predecessor Lough, Machado was not one to wait around for the pitch to end all pitches. He took a hack at offering number one, then applied the same strategy to offering number two, fouling a ball back behind home plate for strike two. On pitch number three, Machado drilled a worm-burner towards Seager, who casually scooped it up, tossed across the diamond, and recorded the second out of the inning. We were one out away.

I thought about my grandmother then. She would have loved this. Day games were her favorite, if for no other reason than the fact that she could (mostly) stay awake from start to finish without feeling the need to go to bed. And here we were on a day she’d otherwise be found sitting in her green recliner one out away from her favorite Mariner throwing a no-hitter. For the first time all season, I wished my grandmother could have seen what the M’s were doing.

And then, suddenly, it was over.

Gerardo Parra had no intention of heightening the suspense. On the 116th pitch of Iwakuma’s day, and the first that Parra would see in this trip to the dish, the Orioles’ left-handed hitting right fielder drove a fly ball to Austin Jackson in center field, who hauled it in after a few long, loping strides to his right. And there it was. History had been made.

First baseman Logan Morrison reached Iwakuma first, embracing him and bringing a beaming smile to the pitcher’s face. A bevy of Mariners immediately followed suit and suddenly it was madness. Water was dumped upon a bouncing cluster of white jerseys, hugs were ubiquitous, hats were discarded, and for a moment, in spite of everything that had preceded this day, not a single soul was unhappy. It was everything you’d want in a baseball game.

There have been letdowns, yes. Let’s not kid ourselves when putting the entire framework of this season into perspective. But for one afternoon in August, none of those letdowns mattered.

Iwakuma was as close to perfect as any ballplayer can be and his achievement won’t soon be forgotten. In a year divided by injury and marred by early-season struggles, he delivered the most exhilarating performance of his career. It was nothing short of spectacular.

I’ll always remember where I was when Hisashi Iwakuma etched his name in Mariners lore – my living room, standing in front of the TV, for the record. I’ll always remember how happy I felt when the last out was secured. And I’ll always, always remember what my grandma would have said to me after the fifth no-hitter in Seattle Mariners history had been spun: “Why don’t they let him play more?”

Yeah. Why don’t they?

3 thoughts on “Hisashi Iwakuma’s Happy Day”

  1. And she would have sat in her rocking chair raising her tiny wiry arm and fist in the air saying “YAY YAY YAY!”

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