SEATTLE -- It's not easy being the best pitcher on a staff that includes Felix Hernandez. Yet Hisashi Iwakuma established himself as not only the Mariners' most consistent hurler in 2013, but also one of the premier pitchers in all of baseball, as he finished third in balloting for the American League Cy Young Award.
Max Scherzer of the Tigers won the AL award after going 21-3 with a 2.90 ERA, with Yu Darvish of the Rangers second and Japanese countryman Iwakuma third, as announced Wednesday by the Baseball Writers' Association of America.
Scherzer earned 28 of the 30 first-place votes and finished with 203 points as the runaway winner. Darvish totaled 93 points, while Iwakuma finished with 73. Hernandez, who won the award in 2010 for the Mariners, finished eighth with six points.
"It is such an honor to be one of the finalists for the best [pitcher award]," Iwakuma told Mariners translator Antony Suzuki. "I had never thought I would become a finalist here in the U.S., so this is very special to me and is a big surprise."
Iwakuma signed with the Mariners in 2012 after a decade as one of Japan's top pitchers. The 32-year-old worked in long relief for the first half of his rookie season in order to gain familiarity with Major League hitters and his new surroundings while regaining arm strength following an injury in 2011.
As a result, 2013 was Iwakuma's first full season in Seattle's rotation, and he was strong from start to finish, going 14-6 and ranking second in the AL in WHIP (a club-record 1.006), third in ERA (2.66), innings (219 2/3) and opponents' batting average (.220), fourth in strikeout-to-walk ratio (4.40) and quality starts (23), and fifth in opponents' OPS (.630).
Iwakuma had the highest WAR of any AL pitcher at 7.0, with Scherzer third (6.7) and Darvish fifth (5.8). Iwakuma's win total was limited by 13 no-decisions -- despite a 2.86 ERA in those starts -- and he became just the second pitcher in Major League history to have five starts of at least six innings in which he recorded a no-decision despite not allowing an earned run.
"I am very proud and happy with what I have established here in two years," Iwakuma said. "I have learned a lot, and it has been quite an experience. I started my career here in the big leagues as a reliever and worked my way up. There is more to learn down the road and more to prove, as well, so I look forward to the future."
Iwakuma is under contract for one more year at $6.5 million, with a club option of $7 million for 2015. Since moving into the rotation in July of 2012, he's gone 22-10 with a 2.66 ERA in 49 starts. And he expects to continue building on that success next year.
"I have not set my goals for 2014 in stone yet, but I can say this for now," Iwakuma said. "Last season was my first full season as a starter. To be successful, you need to maintain your performance for a long period of time. That said, I will need to come up with similar or better results than last season, and that is what I look forward to doing."
Iwakuma's biggest lesson from his first year in the Majors was that he needed to get ready for Spring Training earlier. He came to camp last year primed and ready before going 7-1 with a 1.79 ERA in his first 14 starts en route to his first All-Star berth.
He'll take a similar approach this offseason in Japan, where he's resting now before beginning his offseason throwing program soon.
Iwakuma also plans to take part in a baseball clinic later this month in Ishinomaki in the Sendai Region in Japan, an area that was devastated by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in his hometown.
"During this time of the year, I like to take my time to give back to the city I played for that supported me for many years and give spirit to the people and kids that dream about baseball," he said. "I will also be making an appearance in Tokyo at the MLB Cafe in December to talk about the years and experience in the U.S."
Iwakuma's success isn't new to his Japanese fans. He helped Japan win the 2009 World Baseball Classic and also pitched in the 2004 Olympics. He was a three-time All-Star in the Pacific League, where he won MVP honors and the Eiji Sawamura Award -- Japan's equivalent of the Cy Young Award -- in 2008, when he went 21-4 with a 1.87 ERA for the Rakuten Eagles.
The Mariners have had two Cy Young Award winners in their 37-year history, with Randy Johnson earning the award in 1995, and Hernandez in 2010.