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Iwakuma may thrive in shadows with spotlight on Darvish

by Jason Coskrey

It’s doubtful Hisashi Iwakuma’s debut in the major leagues with the Seattle Mariners will make a big splash in many locales outside Seattle, unless of course it comes against the Oakland A’s at Tokyo Dome in March. Though in that case, outfielder Ichiro Suzuki will be the player in the spotlight.

Even if Iwakuma makes an appearance during the MLB’s Japan Opening Series — scheduled for March 28-29 — he’ll quickly be relegated to afterthought status as the hoopla surrounding the Texas Rangers’ Yu Darvish reaches fever pitch in anticipation of his first start in early April.

That much is evident by the way the two were introduced.

Darvish’s journey was documented from Japan to Texas, with his introductory news conference making international headlines.

Iwakuma, meanwhile, simply joined the Mariners’ Fanfest on Sunday to little fanfare.

Wearing a Mariners jacket, he shared the stage with two teammates and made a few comments, with no signs of the hysteria that accompanied Darvish’s unveiling to be found.

That might be a blow to Iwakuma’s pride, but it’s one of the few advantages he holds over his highly touted compatriot.

The adjustments a Japanese pitcher has to make in the U.S. are numerous, and it’s helpful not to have to tackle them with half the world watching.

While each move Darvish makes will be broken down and dissected a thousand different ways by analysts in both Japan and the U.S., Iwakuma will be given more latitude.

Unlike Darvish, there is no presumption of greatness with Iwakuma, and no unattainable expectations to be forced upon him. He also won’t be trying to live up to the pressure of a nearly $112 million investment, which is what Darvish cost the Rangers between his posting fee and contract.

So while Darvish will toil under the Texas sun, burdened by the weight of enormous expectations, Iwakuma can breathe easy.

He isn’t heralded as a phenomenon. He’s simply a very good pitcher who will be trying to traverse a gap that’s flummoxed a number of his countrymen.

He’s not even much of a financial risk. With a one-year contract worth $1.5 million — with another $3.4 million in performance-based incentives — Iwakuma could turn out to be a steal if his right shoulder is indeed as healthy as he says it is.

In 10 seasons in Japan, Iwakuma was 107-69 with a 3.25 ERA and 1.20 WHIP. He’s adept at inducing ground balls and will utilize a solid slider and forkball in Seattle’s pitcher-friendly ballpark.

There’s no question about his abilities, just in how they’ll translate to the majors. But he’ll be able to make that transition without the intense scrutiny Darvish will face in Texas.

Darvish is seen by many as a replacement for C.J. Wilson, a pitcher who helped lead the Rangers to back-to-back appearances in the World Series before moving on to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim as a free agent this offseason.

The Rangers have tried to temper expectations, but there’s no question a lot will be expected from Darvish from the start.

He’s been hailed as the next big thing by scouts at nearly every turn, and now baseball observers and fans are anxious to see hype meet reality.

As good as he is, it will be extremely hard for Darvish to match the hype. Even a solid season may induce a far-too quick rush to judgement by some — mostly by-products of unfounded comparisons to Daisuke Matsuzaka and Kei Igawa — where fans wonder aloud if the Rangers dug too deep into their wallets for the expensive right-hander.

Iwakuma, meanwhile, will be safely tucked away in the Pacific Northwest, in a very Japanese-friendly community, which may be a big help off the field, and away from the spotlight, save for the residual attention he’ll garner from playing with Ichiro.

Iwakuma stole the show as a virtual unknown at the World Baseball Classic three years ago, and he could be setting himself up for one heck of an encore.