Regal Eagles: Iwakuma-Tanaka is 'big news'

First time former Japanese teammates will square off on the mound in Majors

Regal Eagles: Iwakuma-Tanaka is 'big news'

NEW YORK -- Masahiro Tanaka said that he looked up to Hisashi Iwakuma during their five seasons as teammates with Japan's Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, with the veteran Iwakuma often advising the younger Tanaka on the strategies of facing hitters.

They will reunite on the Major League stage on Sunday, with Iwakuma and Tanaka comprising the pitching matchup for the Mariners-Yankees tilt at Yankee Stadium.

"I read somewhere that it's the first time [former Japanese teammates are] pitching against each other in the States, so I was a little surprised of knowing that," Tanaka said through an interpreter. "I'm really looking forward to the challenge of facing a former teammate."

Indeed, while Japanese starters have previously met 11 times in the Majors -- most recently, the Yankees' Hiroki Kuroda and the Rangers' Yu Darvish in June 2013 -- this does mark the first time that a pair of former teammates will link up.

Iwakuma and Tanaka had been scheduled to go head-to-head in 2014, but a rainout spoiled those plans.

"I look at it as another game," Iwakuma said through an interpreter. "I'm not here in the Majors to face Tanaka. He's just another pitcher. I know we have a relationship, but I don't want to go deep into emotions thinking about it."

Tanaka joined the Golden Eagles out of high school in 2007, when Iwakuma was already a five-year veteran. In 2008, Iwakuma won 21 games with a 1.87 ERA, earning selection for the Eiji Sawamura Award, which is Nippon Professional Baseball's equivalent of the Cy Young Award.

Iwakuma fans seven

"He was the ace of the staff when I joined the Rakuten Eagles," said Tanaka, who described Iwakuma as having good control and feel for the ball. "I learned a lot from him, and he taught a lot to me, as well."

Iwakuma pitched three more seasons in Japan before departing for the United States prior to the 2012 season, when he started his big league career as a reliever with Seattle. Tanaka watched from afar as Iwakuma turned in an All-Star campaign in 2013, winning 14 games with a 2.83 ERA.

They were a combined 120-62 over their five years together from 2007-12, and though they never discussed what their future in the Majors might hold, Tanaka leaned on his former teammate for advice prior to joining the Yankees in 2014.

"He's always been a great pitcher with talent," said Iwakuma, who added that they still keep in touch via the occasional text message. "He is what he is. He was a very good pitcher back in Japan -- and that's what he is today, as well."

Though Tanaka's first pitch on Sunday will be thrown at approximately 3 a.m. local time in Tokyo, he and Iwakuma both expect that there will be a great deal of attention paid to the game at home.

"I think it's big news back there," Iwakuma said. "We played with each other on the same team for a long time. A lot of fans back in Japan and the whole nation have rooted for us, and now it's myself vs. Tanaka. It's a different story. I'm sure all the fans will enjoy it. I hope to contribute enough to where I can make the fans very happy."

Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @bryanhoch, on Facebook and read his MLBlog, Bombers Beat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.