PHOENIX -- It was only one inning and 15 pitches, but Mariners right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma said he's feeling much stronger and more confident as he sets out on his second season.
Iwakuma, 31, struggled early in Spring Training last year after signing as a free agent out of Japan and wound up beginning the year in the bullpen before emerging as a solid starter in the second half. But he's penciled into Seattle's rotation from the get-go this year and eager to get rolling after setting the top of the Brewers' lineup down in order on three ground balls in Tuesday's 6-5 win.
"It felt great," Iwakuma said through translator Antony Suzuki after retiring Norichika Aoki, Rickie Weeks and Ryan Braun. "It gives me a lot of confidence, because I like to keep the ball on the ground and not up in the air. I wanted to take advantage of my two-seam and split finger when I was ahead in the count, and I was able to do that. So it was good."
The 6-foot-3, 210-pound Iwakuma said he worked hard over the offseason to be ready sooner this spring.
"I feel a lot stronger than where I was last year, and I'm very comfortable with my strength," he said. "I started a lot earlier than I have in my past. Not just my arm, but I've been working on my core training, and that's helped a lot.
"I do feel a difference, especially when I'm throwing my fastball. That pitch is low in the strike zone, and I feel it's a lot sharper than before."
Manager Eric Wedge liked what he saw from the right-hander.
"He's been throwing the ball well all camp," Wedge said. "He's strong, the ball is jumping out of his hand and he has good action on all of his pitches."
The biggest difference for Iwakuma now that he's back for a second season in the Majors?
"The first year you don't know what will happen," Iwakuma said. "You don't know what your routine will look like. You don't know your left from right, as opposed to this year when you know what to expect and when to be ready for a game, so that makes it a lot easier."
Morales healthy, ready to contribute in Seattle
PEORIA, Ariz. -- Kendrys Morales said he knew he was gone from the Angels as soon as they acquired Josh Hamilton over the offseason, and now he's ready to do the best he can for his new Mariners team.
Morales, speaking in Spanish to MLB.com reporter Alden Gonzalez, said he's excited about his new situation after eight years in the Angels organization.
"We have a good team this year," Morales said. "And the best thing is, a lot of the guys are young."
As for leaving the Angels in the December trade for Jason Vargas?
"I figured something was in the works," Morales said. "I was ready for the call they gave me. It didn't take me by surprise at all. As soon as they signed Josh Hamilton, I started preparing myself. They didn't tell me anything, I just figured that would be the case. It was a quick change, just like that."
Morales is 0-for-5 in his first two games for the Mariners this spring. He didn't play in Tuesday's game against the Brewers, but is expected to be a mainstay in the middle of Seattle's lineup at designated hitter or first base this season.
For Morales, the key is staying healthy. At this point last spring, he wasn't able to play at all, as he was still recovering from the fractured ankle that wiped out his entire 2011 season. He told Gonzalez that this has been a completely different spring.
"I feel pretty good," Morales said. "I had a pretty intense offseason, and I strengthened my ankle a lot. I don't think it's going to be a problem to play first base.
"I can do weights all the way on my legs; I don't have to be in rehab mode," he said. "That would take up a lot of my time [last year] and I wasn't able to work on my body as much as I'd like.
"This is a very important year," said the pending free agent, "and you have to be ready physically to play the whole year. What can really mess you up is injuries. That's what you have to avoid."
Smoak continues early surge against Brewers
PHOENIX -- Looking to carry last year's strong finish over to 2013, Justin Smoak continued his impressive start to Cactus League play with a 2-for-4 day, including the game-winning home run, in Tuesday's 6-5 victory over the Brewers.
Smoak is now 5-for-9 with two home runs, a double and four RBIs in three games. Last year, he batted .378 in the spring, but had no homers and five RBIs in 15 games.
The 26-year-old is hitting the ball with authority, and Tuesday's blast, a two-run shot in the eighth inning, came off Brewers closer John Axford. He also singled in the second off starter Yovani Gallardo and laced an opposite-field line drive in the third that left fielder Ryan Braun snared with a nice diving catch.
"I'm feeling good," Smoak said. "I feel like I'm slowing the ball down a little bit and letting it get to me. Early on, you normally feel like everything is a little late trying to get your rhythm and timing down, but for me, I've been seeing it a lot better than I thought I would."
Manager Eric Wedge is counting on Smoak as his everyday first baseman this year, despite his .217 batting average in 2012, particularly if he can continue to show that September's strong finish was legitimate.
"He's just been swinging the bat well," Wedge said. "He's got great balance up there, he's strong, his hands are quick and his barrel is getting to the baseball. I just think he's in a good place. He's worked hard to get there, and it's paying off for him."
Smoak was at designated hitter the whole game Tuesday, as Wedge looks to get him comfortable with his swing early.
"We saw the results at the end of last year, and I'm just trying to keep that going into this year," Smoak said. "It's something I worked on all offseason, and I feel good right now."
• Felix Hernandez will throw his first live batting practice Thursday morning at the Peoria complex against Mariners hitters as he steps up his spring routine. Hernandez has thrown three 10-minute bullpens, and now he'll go to live BP before pitching in games.
Hernandez will likely get his first Cactus League start on Thursday, March 7, when the Mariners have a split-squad day against the Royals and Athletics. That would put him in line for five Cactus League starts -- with pitching coach Carl Willis looking to build him up to about 90-plus pitches -- before Opening Day in Oakland on April 1.
• Danny Hultzen will start Wednesday against the Indians at Goodyear, followed by fellow prized prospect Taijuan Walker. Both are slated for two innings
• Veteran right-hander Jon Garland will make his first start Thursday against the Giants in Scottsdale as he begins his comeback from shoulder surgery. Blake Beavan is slated to pitch second that day and throw three innings, followed by two innings by Erasmo Ramirez.
• Mariners games on Wednesday and Thursday of this week will be broadcast on 710 ESPN Seattle radio on a delayed basis at 7 p.m. PT. Those radio broadcasts will be streamed live on Mariners.com for free at 1:05 p.m. MT (12:05 p.m. PT).