Their paths started a little differently in Nippon Professional Baseball. One was once with another franchise upon the start of his NPB career, and the way he ultimately became a teammate was rather odd. The other hit the ground running at the age of 18 after a highly successful high school career, breaking records along the way.
For five years, Masahiro Tanaka and Hisashi Iwakuma were teammates with the Rakuten Golden Eagles. Iwakuma came to the Golden Eagles in 2005. He had previously been with . Tanaka started and, for the moment, ended his NPB career with Rakuten.
Tonight, the former teammates will face each other for the first time in a professional game. I’m sure the requests for press credentials has been stout for those that handle those for the Seattle Mariners.
Iwakuma began with the Osaka Kintetsu Buffaloes. After the 2004 season, the Buffaloes would merge with the Orix BlueWave. The merger was done to alleviate financial strains, but a void was created in the six-team Pacific League. Another team was necessary, and thus the Rakuten Golden Eagles were born from this move.
But Iwakuma refused to go with the newly formed Orix Buffaloes, leading to a contract dispute. He was eventually traded to Rakuten for cash.
Tanaka came to the Golden Eagles after a highly-touted high school career. He would strike out 456 opposing batters in his three years, surpassing the previous record of 423 which had been set by Daisuke Matsuzaka.
During the September 2006 high school draft, four teams (Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, Orix Buffaloes, Yokohama BayStars and Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles ) selected Tanaka with their first round selection. Rakuten was the ultimate winner of the Tanaka sweepstakes (sound familiar?) and signed him to a deal.
For those five seasons with Rakuten (2007 though 2011), the duo posted some fairly impressive numbers.
You would think that seeing these numbers might have meant some good showings in the NPB’s Pacific Division. Was hardly the case.
In 2007, which was Tanaka’s rookie season, the Golden Eagles finished with a record of 67-75-2, putting them in fourth place in the six-team division. Tanaka finished second in strikeouts with 196.
Iwakuma was limited to just 16 starts due to various ailments. He was slated to be the Opening Day starter, but hours before the game, he experienced back stiffness. Some time later, an oblique strain sidelined him. At the end of the season, he required elbow surgery.
2008 saw the team finish with a record of 65-76-3, fifth place. Iwakuma returned with a vengeance as he led the JPL in wins (21), which was five more than second-place Yu Darvish. Iwakuma’s 1.87 ERA was also the best among starters.
A second consecutive “mediocre” season for Tanaka, if you can call it that. He went 9-7 with a 3.49 ERA and 1.303 WHIP.
2009 brought a 77-66-1 record and second place finish. This was the only season where the Golden Eagles made the postseason with the duo on the roster. Rakuten defeated the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks in a three-game playoff, 2-0. They would lose a five-game series to eventual Pacific League Champion, the Nippon Ham Fighters, 4 games to 1.
2010 was not as successful, as the Golden Eagles finished 62-79-3 and in last place. The poor showing led to manager Marty Brown being let go after only one season. Tanaka tosses eight complete games, second in the JPL.
After the season, Iwakuma was posted by Rakuten, and the Oakland Athletics won the bidding. The team and Iwakuma could not come to terms, and Iwakuma returned to Rakuten for what would be one last season.
The 2011 season came…and went. A team record of 66-71-7 and a fifth-place finish might not have been the way for Iwakuma to go. Once again limited, he made just 17 starts. His final season saw a 6-7 record with a 2.42 ERA and 1.050 WHIP.
But on the other hand, you could say this season was Tanaka’s “breakout” season. He finished with a record of 19-5, a 1.27 ERA, and a 0.875 WHIP. His 19 wins tied for tops in the JPL. He finished second to Darvish in WHIP, innings pitched (226.1), and strikeouts (241). Tanaka also hurled 14 complete games with six shutouts.
And this all leads us to this evening. I’m pretty sure this won’t be the only time these two will be in this situation. Iwakuma could become a free agent after this season, but the Seattle Mariners hold a $7M option for next season ($1M buyout). Odds are likely the M’s pick up that option, leaving the chance of yet another Masahiro Tanaka and Hisashi Iwakuma matchup on down the road.
UPDATED: Well, obviously the matchup didn’t go down as planned. With last night’s rainout, the Yankees elected to push back the rotation, meaning Tanaka will face Chris Young in Wednesday night’s game.