SEATTLE -- In a season of inconsistencies for the Mariners, rock-steady right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma turned out to be the best and brightest surprise of 2013.
It's not easy to be the best hurler on a staff headed by Felix Hernandez, but Iwakuma deservedly was named the Mariners' Pitcher of the Year by the Seattle Chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America following a season in which he established himself as one of the premier right-handers in baseball.
Iwakuma likely won't win the American League Cy Young Award, which seems destined for Max Scherzer after he went 21-3 with a 2.90 ERA and led the Majors in strikeouts for the Tigers. But the 32-year-old Japanese standout certainly deserves to be in the Cy Young conversation after going 14-6 with a 2.66 ERA and ranking among the AL leaders in nearly every significant pitching statistic.
Iwakuma finished second in the AL in WHIP with a club record 1.006, third in ERA, innings (219 2/3) and opponent's batting average (.220), fourth in strikeouts-to-walks ratio (4.40) and quality starts (23), fifth in opponent's OPS (.630) and 12th in strikeouts (185).
By any measure, he was an outstanding bargain at $6.5 million in his second season in the Majors. The Mariners have Iwakuma under contract again for $6.5 million in 2014, with a club option for $7 million for 2015 as well.
Iwakuma came into this past season with the goal of being stronger and more consistent than his first year with the Mariners, when he spent three months as a long reliever before getting healthy and comfortable enough in his new surroundings to move into the rotation at midseason.
After throwing a career high for innings and earning an American League All-Star berth, Iwakuma set new sights for 2014. And if he lives up to his early goal, the Mariners will be more than pleased again.
"I have to do better than I did this season," Iwakuma said through translator Antony Suzuki. "That's what I can say for now and we'll kind of go from there."
Perhaps most impressive about Iwakuma's season was the way he finished, posting a 1.62 ERA with seven quality starts in his last eight outings, including a 0.76 ERA in five September starts.
"Like I said in Spring Training, one of my ultimate goals was to stay healthy through the long course of the season and stay in the rotation, and I was able to accomplish that and go 200-plus innings," Iwakuma said. "I'm very happy for that."
How did he get even stronger down the stretch?
"That's a tough question," Iwakuma said. "I probably couldn't answer that. But I can say I was able to find my upper-body and lower-body balance better toward the end of the season, which kept less stress on my elbow and shoulder."
Iwakuma helped take some of the stress out of a tough season for the Mariners, as well. Even though he speaks little English, Iwakuma worked seamlessly with rookie catcher Mike Zunino in the closing weeks as the two established what figures to be a strong rapport for the coming years.
"That went really well," said Zunino, who communicates with Iwakuma through his translator both before and during starts. "He's a guy that is extremely smart and knows what he wants to do, so that speaks enough for itself."
Which is why Iwakuma's game tempo was much quicker this season, as he grew more comfortable with his knowledge of opposing batters and how to attack situations.
"His planning and game planning is just so advanced that he's going into games knowing exactly what he wants to do and he's executing that," Zunino said. "There's really no hiccup in the whole process. He's able to go out and pitch his game and nothing has slowed him down."
Third baseman Kyle Seager has seen his teammate's growth over the past two years, both on and off the field.
"He's in a tough spot, with the whole language barrier," Seager said. "And he's kind of a quiet guy to start with. But he definitely came out and talks to everybody now. He interacts as much as he can, so he's been great."
And on the mound, there is no mistaking the quiet ferocity with which Iwakuma competes. Opposing batters hit .228 against him with the bases empty, .204 with a runner on and .184 with a runner in scoring position.
"He keeps his composure really well, but he's got that quiet fire to him," Seager said. "You can tell he gets upset at himself if he misses a pitch, but at the same time, he's quick to praise everybody else for making plays. He's a guy you really like playing behind."
It didn't take Zunino long to recognize one of Iwakuma's strengths was the difficulty for opposing batters to read both his pitches and his demeanor.
"He's one of those guys that shows no emotion," Zunino said. "But those are the guys you don't want to face because you don't know if they're rattled or are feeling their best. He just plays it so well. He never gets too high or too low and that's why he's been able to have the success he does, night in and night out."
And why the Mariners now have one of the better 1-2 punches in baseball at the top of their rotation with Hernandez and Iwakuma.