After shaky spring, Iwakuma looks to rebound vs. Astros

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Tuesday, April 4, 2017

HOUSTON -- Dismissing spring training statistics is an annual rite of passage, particularly when those stats are compiled by veterans with extensive track records for performing when the stakes are higher during the regular season.

For Seattle Mariners manager Scott Servais, that means not putting much stock in the Cactus League struggles of right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma, who posted a 7.13 ERA and a .311 opponents' batting average over 17 2/3 innings and six spring training starts.

Iwakuma (16-12, 4.12 ERA in 2016) will make his season debut on Tuesday in the second game of a three-game set with the Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park.

"There's a reason he's a veteran guy; he's gone through it a lot," Servais said. "He's had some rough starts before and bounced back. Even if you look at his season last year, he didn't get off to a great start. He was kind of just hovering and then all of a sudden we had one of those come-from-behind wins and he ended up getting the 'W' and then he rolled off about seven or eight in a row.

"He did work on some things mechanically in his last bullpen. He knows himself and his delivery as good as anybody we have. I'm sure he'll compete very well for us."

At 23, more than 12 years younger than Iwakuma, Astros right-hander Lance McCullers (6-5, 3.22 ERA in 2016) doesn't possess an extensive enough big league ledger to summarily dismiss his Grapefruit League numbers (1-2, 7.31 ERA over five starts). But McCullers does own a power arm and a world of potential, promise he flashed last season before succumbing to an elbow injury in August.

Healthy and raring to go opposite Iwakuma, McCullers took measures during spring training to improve his changeup, a pitch he utilized just 7.49 percent of the time in 2016. Some of his woes during spring training were tied to his committing more to the changeup while working his way back into prime form.

"It's a flow thing," McCullers said of his changeup. "It's how you work into it. If you throw good ones early, you're going to be more confident. You're going to move along in that game with some confidence in it. If you throw some bad ones early, you may shy away from it. That's on me and Mac (catcher Brian McCann) to figure out. I think majority of the time I'm going to throw better ones early than not."

McCullers is confident that his changeup will round into form and serve as a complement to his mid-90s fastball and wipeout curveball. That he's healthy enough to have earned a spot on the Opening Day roster for the first time is key.

"That was the biggest thing coming into spring," McCullers said. "The one thing (pitching coach Brent Strom) asked me coming into spring was come to spring healthy and leave spring healthy. That's all he asked of me. Of course, we want to work and get better along the way, but that is my first box to check off."