Mariners’ Iwakuma ready to shoulder load again if needed

PEORIA, Ariz. — Pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma was a major reason the Seattle Mariners stayed in the race for an American League wild-card playoff spot until the second-to-last day of the 2016 season.

The big right-hander led the Mariners with 16 wins, and he got the start on Oct. 1 with Seattle in a must-win situation at home against Oakland in order to have a chance. Iwakuma faltered, however, and gave up five runs on nine hits in 3 2-3 innings.

The Mariners wound up losing 9-8 and were eliminated. But Iwakuma was their workhorse in a season that saw ace Felix Hernandez lose some velocity and miss a few starts due to injury.

Iwakuma got to Arizona several days before the spring training report date to get a jump on preparation for this season.

Iwakuma made 33 starts and fell an inning short of 200 in 2016. A couple of months shy of turning 36 years old, he’s eager to show he can still be counted on as often.

“‘Kuma takes his offseason as serious as anybody. I think he wants to show people that he can carry that workload,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “It’s hard for him, especially where he’s at in his career. We got probably more out of him than we expected, which is great. We certainly needed it, and he wants to back it up again this year.”

Servais said Iwakuma was disappointed in the start against Oakland with the season on the line. Servais said fatigue might have been a factor.

“But he really carried us. Especially when Felix went down and we were struggling to get consistent innings out of our starters. He was our most consistent guy,” Servais said.

An All-Star in 2013 with a no-hitter to his credit, Iwakuma is in his sixth season as a Mariner. He’s won consistently, with double-digit wins in three seasons. His win total and innings total last season were career highs.

“I was able to pitch 33 games, a full season, and I’m very happy for that. That’s what you want to do as a starter,” Iwakuma said through interpreter Antony Suzuki. “I look forward to doing that again this year. Sixteens wins is great, I look forward to winning more than that this year. I don’t have a goal yet, but just staying healthy for an entire season and helping the team and contributing, that’s all I think about right now.”

Iwakuma said he didn’t think much about whether fatigue was a factor in him going 2-5 from Aug. 18 to the end of last season. He did open the season 0-3 in April.

“That’s another thing I have to work on, having a good September and finishing strong,” he said.

Iwakuma feels healthy as camp begins, with pitchers and catchers set for their first workout on Wednesday. He spurned another chance to pitch for Japan in the World Baseball Classic — he represented his country in 2009 — to focus on his goal of making all of his starts for the Mariners in 2017.

And this year, he’s confident the Mariners can make the postseason for the first time since 2001.

“Very happy. Very excited about this team,” he said.

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