TOKYO — Long known as the Yankees of Japan, the Yomiuri Giants lived up to the standard Monday night at the Tokyo Dome. But did the Mariners have to be the Bad News Bears of MLB?
The 21-time champions of the Japan Series won 9-3, despite the fact that the Mariners put three Japanese players in the lineup to try to keep pace.
Besides Ichiro, the Mariners started newcomer shortstop Munenori Kawasaki and Hisashi Iwakuma, Monday’s opening pitcher, all of whom were predictably hailed in the pre-game ceremony by another big crowd of 43,379.
The warm-and-fuzzies for the Mariners started to fade shortly thereafter, especially for Iwakuma, who gave up six runs and 10 hits in four innings. Before the team left for Japan, manager Eric Wedge decided Iwakuma would start the season in the bullpen. It became apparent why he wasn’t starting material.
“I don’t think it was pressure,” said Mariners manager Eric Wedge of Iwakuma’s shakiness. “He just wasn’t able to make the pitches to finish off hitters. He threw OK.
“We know he’s working his way back (after injuries in 2011). That’s why we want him to help us in the bullpen, whether long or middle relief. Bullpens evolve over the course of a season, and hopefully he’ll be in the middle of all that.”
Iwakuma was up in the strike zone and gave up a run each inning, and the relief crew of Lucas Luetge, Shawn Kelley, George Sherrill and Charlie Furbush was little better. And then Ichiro and Kawasaki combined to go 0-for-7.
The only noteworthy offense among the five Mariners hits came from Dustin Ackley, who homered in the first and tripled in the third. The one defensive highlight belonged to Ichiro, a laser throw with the bases loaded in the fifth inning that arrived at the plate on the fly, thwarting any notion of a sac fly.
The lowlight came in seventh inning, when reserve catcher Guillermo Quiroz had consecutive passed balls that allowed in a run, plus a wild throw to first for an error by reliever George Sherrill as well as a blown grounder by third baseman Alex Liddi.
HIGH FLY BALLS — Trouble was apparent for Dustin Ackley, and not just because his stomach was heading throat-ward.
“We went straight up, we went straight down. I didn’t know if we were going upside down,” said the Mariners second baseman, grinning. “I wasn’t sure we weren’t going to go down. I was hanging on for dear life.”
Even though he could have been describing the Mariners’ 2011 season, he was sharing his view of Tokyo Bay in the back of a U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopter. He and teammates Justin Smoak and George Sherrill were getting the most spectacular ride home in the history of Tokyo traffic.
The three Mariners were part of a meet-and-greet lunch and autograph session Monday with troops serving at Camp Zuma, a small American army base south of town. The helicopter ride from Tokyo to Zuma was routine, the ride back deliberately thought- provoking.
“Awesome,” said Smoak. “It’s something most people don’t get to do. And it was great talking to the soldiers, and thank them.”
He couldn’t help but laugh at Ackley’s near re-visit with lunch.
I was definitely feeling it for a little bit,” Ackley said. “You can’t compare it to a roller coaster, because that’s too safe.”
The disturbance to his digestion apparently was beneficial. Several hours later, he hit a home run in his first at-bat against the Giants, a triple in his second and deep fly-out in his third.
OFF-DAY — The Mariners and A’s have a day off Tuesday between the exhibition games with Japanese teams and the unpleasantries between each other Wednesday and Thursday that count in the MLB standings.
“I like the off-day,” Mariners manager Eric Wedge said. “It’s been a completely different couple of days for us, and we obviously have to get refocused. We have to get a little ramped up.”
True dat. Another few games against local teams, and the Mariners might be relegated to Japan’s Central League.