PEORIA, Ariz. — Hisashi Iwakuma’s season has already been put on hold before it even started. On Wednesday with pitchers and catchers reporting for their pre-spring training physicals, an optimistic day marking the beginning of spring training, the Mariners announced that their All-Star starting pitcher would be sidelined for at least the first month of spring training and likely won’t be ready to go when the season starts.
On Monday, Iwakuma met with hand specialist Dr. Don Sheridan in Arizona and was diagnosed with a strained tendon in the middle finger of his right throwing hand.
“Luckily, this does not appear to be a serious injury,” general manager Jack Zduriencik said in a statement. “It is a setback for Kuma, but we are confident that he will quickly overcome the missed time and be able to rejoin our rotation early in the regular season.”
It’s a frustrating start for Iwakuma, who is coming off a brilliant season where he posted 14-6 record with a 2.66 earned-run average — third-lowest in the American League. He pitched 2192/3 innings (third-most in the AL) and struck out 185 hitters with just 42 walks. He had two different stretches where he pitched 20 or more consecutive scoreless innings. It was good enough for him to be named to the All-Star team and finish third in Cy Young voting.
Iwakuma said through translator Antony Suzuki that he injured the finger during a workout on Jan. 20 in California with ex-teammates. He was playing catch and jumped up to catch a ball that was thrown high. As he was coming down, he reached back with his free hand and got his finger trapped in the netting of a protective screen behind him.
“I knew it was injured, but I didn’t think it was a major thing,” Iwakuma said through Suzuki. “I rested it for about a week and then I started playing catch again — long toss as always. I thought it was good, but the pain didn’t go away.”
Iwakuma was wearing a small splint on the finger. It’s not noticeable — just a two-inch royal blue sleeve covering the top half of his finger. Team officials said Iwakuma wouldn’t throw for four to six weeks. He is hoping that process will be expedited with daily treatment that includes anti-inflammatory medication, icing and electronic stimulation. He is scheduled to meet with Sheridan in three weeks. Even if Iwakuma could start throwing a week early, the time missed will set back his throwing program and preparation significantly. Being ready by opening day seems unlikely.
“I want to be ready as soon as possible,” he said. “I want to be ready for the start of the season; realistically, I don’t know if I can make that happen.”
From a pitching standpoint, Iwakuma’s best pitch is his split-finger fastball. It can put significant pressure on the middle finger. He wasn’t sure how the injury might affect that pitch.
“I did feel discomfort when I was playing catch,” he said. “We’ll have to see how it feels down the road.”
The pressure placed on that finger with the split-finger and his two-seam fastball will be the reason the Mariners won’t allow Iwakuma to rush back too soon. They don’t want the injury to become a nagging problem.
With Iwakuma likely to miss the first few weeks of the season, the Mariners have more uncertainty around their starting rotation. Iwakuma and ace Felix Hernandez were the only assured starters. Beyond that, the organization was looking at Erasmo Ramirez and rookies Taijuan Walker and James Paxton along with non-roster invitees like Scott Baker to fill out the remaining spots.
Iwakuma’s injury might even force Zduriencik to consider signing one of the two top remaining free agents — Ervin Santana or Ubaldo Jimenez.
The Mariners were also looking into possible trades for a No. 3 starter before Iwakuma’s injury.