Hisashi Iwakuma, Chris Young Are Unsung Heroes of Mariners' Rapid 2014 Rise

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistAugust 26, 2014

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Felix Hernandez casts a long shadow over opposing batters and his teammates. So it goes when you're baseball royalty.

Two of King Felix's Seattle Mariners rotation-mates, though, deserve a moment in the sun.

Entering play Tuesday, the 71-59 Mariners hold a half-game lead over the Detroit Tigers for the second wild-card spot, and unheralded hurlers Chris Young and Hisashi Iwakuma have more than pitched in.

Iwakuma, 33, made the All-Star team in 2013 but began this season on the disabled list with a torn tendon in his middle finger.

He's long since put the injury behind him and is in the midst of another stellar campaign. His 2.83 ERA and 0.98 WHIP would qualify for No. 1 status on most clubs.

In fact, as ESPN.com's Katie Sharp argues, the Japanese import is a de facto second ace:

It's hard to imagine where the Mariners would be without their dynamic duo of Iwakuma and Hernandez at the top of the rotation. The playoffs would certainly be a pipe dream. But thanks to the combination of baseball's most anonymous ace (Iwakuma) and most deserving ace (Hernandez), Seattle is now in prime position to give its fans something besides football to cheer about in October.

Here's another way of looking at how quietly dominant Iwakuma has been: He and Hernandez are on pace to become just the third duo in the live-ball era to finish the season with sub-1.00 WHIPs, per MLB.com's Roger Schlueter.

The other pairs? Derek Lowe and Pedro Martinez on the 2002 Boston Red Sox, and Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale on the 1964 Los Angeles Dodgers.

Pretty decent company.

Young, 35, is emerging as one of baseball's best comeback stories. Lingering shoulder issues that ultimately required surgery limited him to just nine minor league starts in the Washington Nationals system last season.

Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

His 6.81 ERA in those minor league starts did not portend great things.

But after inking a one-year deal with Seattle this spring, the right-hander has bounced back in a big way. His 150.1 innings pitched speak to a pitcher who's healthy. And his 12-6 record and 3.17 ERA are pleasant surprises.

Pitching, indeed, has been Seattle's calling card. Thanks to a stable of quality arms—and to Safeco Field, the most pitcher-friendly yard in baseball, per ESPN.com—the M's are this season's most unexpected success story.

Seattle's Big Three
Felix Hernandez2.070.88204191
Hisashi Iwakuma2.830.98121149.1
Chris Young3.171.1694150.1

The bats can't be dismissed completely. Robinson Cano is living up to his 10-year, $240 million contract, and All-Star third baseman Kyle Seager has become a grind-it-out fan favorite.

The Mariners' improbable success, though, emanates from the mound. As of Monday, the M's own the best team ERA (2.95) and lowest opponents' batting average (.225) in MLB.

"We’ve got it all," catcher Mike Zunino told Jerry Brewer of The Seattle Times. "We have guys with great curveballs, great cutters, great sliders, guys with plus fastballs. We have the whole spectrum covered. To have that much talent, we can pretty much match up with any lineup."

Count manager Lloyd McClendon among the early believers. "I think we have shutdown pitching," McClendon told Brewer at the outset of spring training.

Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

Still, Seattle's skipper recently admitted to Brewer, "I can't say I knew we'd be this good."

If the Mariners are going to keep being this good, and insert themselves squarely into the suddenly murky American League playoff picture, they'll need King Felix and his long shadow. 

Just as essentially, though, they'll need the guys laboring in relative anonymity. Guys like Young and Iwakuma, who might soon get a chance to shine under the bright lights of October.


All statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.


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