HOUSTON -- He's not going to blow away the radar guns, leave hitters scrambling for cover or be mistaken for an up-and-coming power-armed prospect. But Hisashi Iwakuma has been Mr. Reliable for the Mariners over five years, and he started his sixth season in impressive fashion in Tuesday night's 2-1 loss to the Astros.
Throwing an array of off-speed pitches ranging from 69 mph curveballs to 80-83 mph cutters and a fastball topping out around 87, Iwakuma kept the Astros off-balance for six innings as he allowed just four hits and a pair of runs.
The only damage he allowed came on solo homers by catcher Brian McCann and first baseman Marwin Gonzalez to the short Crawford Boxes in left field at Minute Maid Park on what Iwakuma thought were flyouts off the bat.
Iwakuma kept his pitches down and the ball on the ground for the most part, a good recipe after a rough spring in Arizona.
"He's a pro," said Mariners manager Scott Servais. "Everybody wants to doubt him all the time, but it was Spring Training. You're getting ready for the season. I was excited to see him throw the ball the way he did tonight. Obviously, the two opposite-field home runs hurt, but I thought he threw the ball great. He was very efficient, exactly what we needed."
Iwakuma never has been a flamethrower, but he's learned to work around declining velocity in recent years. Last season, his average four-seam fastball of 88.5 mph and average two-seamer of 87.7 mph both ranked in the bottom five for right-handers in the Major Leagues who threw at least 500 of those pitch types.
When he posted a 2.66 ERA in 2013, Iwakuma averaged 89.5 mph with his four-seamer and 89 mph with his two-seamer. But as he nears his 36th birthday on April 12, the veteran from Japan continues adjusting his game.
"I think pitching sequences plays a big factor," Iwakuma said through interpreter Antony Suzuki. "You want to slow them down to make that fastball look harder. You want to study the hitters as well. Just throwing a crisp fastball helps, too. There's a lot of things that I think about."
Servais, a former catcher, appreciates the cagey veteran's pitching intelligence.
"The velocity is a tick down," Servais said. "He's an 87, 88. What you're seeing now is just a tick below that. But he made pitches tonight and really kept a pretty good hitting team off-balance. Outside the two opposite-field homers, he was really, really good."
And for Iwakuma, even the home runs weren't cause to hang his head, particularly the 359-foot fly by Gonzalez on a pitch that was low and away.
"Those pitches were actually not bad pitches. They weren't mistakes," Iwakuma said. "But tip your cap to Marwin and McCann. They put a good swing on it. They knew the fastball was going to be out there and they took advantage.
"The wind was blowing out and you can't do anything about that. The thing I had in mind was after the home runs, you want to get quick outs, and I was able to do that. So I'm very happy with the results after the homers."
Unfortunately, Iwakuma can't do it on his own. He's 53-7 in 73 career starts where the Mariners give him at least three runs of support, but they managed just one on Tuesday as the offense has struggled out of the gate.
Greg Johns has covered the Mariners since 1997, and for MLB.com since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.