Ever the stoic, Ichiro betrayed little emotion as he took to Safeco Field in the uniform of the New York Yankees.
But as always with him, he was churning inside.
“I was a little worried about the first at-bat,” he said. “I was really relieved by the standing ovation.”
Waking up a Mariner Monday morning and finding himself a Yankee in the afternoon, Ichiro assumed his usual position in right field — although Yankees general manager Joe Girardi said before the game that Ichiro would play left field most of the time — and had the unusual position of batting eighth in the lineup.
As he approached the plate in the second inning, the crowd of 29,911 rose to greet him warmly. He paused, turned to the grandstand, took off his helmet and saluted, then bowed deeply to the fans who embraced him in 2001 when he became the first Japanese position player to make it in MLB.
Then he singled to center off Mariners starter Kevin Millwood, stole second and reached third on an infield out. But as was often the case when he was a Mariner the last couple of seasons, he couldn’t get home.
Nor could he get on base the rest of the game, popping out to second, grounding out to first and lining out to second in his final three at-bats. But the Yankees won, 4-1, and Ichiro’s day of tumult had a happy ending.
“It was definitely a tough day for me,” he said. “But now that it’s over I can focus on baseball again.”
Ichiro and the Yankees, at least manager Joe Girardi, seemed excited about the trade Monday that brought him over from the home dugout for two minor league pitching prospects.
“I talked to him before the game about what our expectations were and he was ready to go,” Girardi said. “He was itching to get out, get dressed and go stretch with the guys. We’re excited to have him. This is a guy who can do a lot of things for us.
“I think having him in New York will take a lot of pressure off him. It just changes our lineup when you have a guy who can do the things that he can do.”
Someone else having a tough day was Mariners first baseman Justin Smoak. After going 0-for-3 and seeing his average drop to .189 — the lowest average in the American League for a regular starter — he was sent to AAA Tacoma after the game.
“You never want to get sent down, c’mon,” Smoak said. “You’re definitely not happy. Sometimes you have go through it to get where you want to be.
“I think everyone’s seen what’s going on. You go down get your work and get back to where I was a couple of months ago. It’s something I’ve had had before, just getting that feel for what works for you.”
On the recent seven-game road trip, Smoak had two homers but was 3×29 with 12 strikeouts.
Asked if he was seeking a specific change, he said, “Just trying to get into a routine day-in, day-out, that works. I’ve been searching for awhile, from both sides.”
The Mariners are expected Tuesday to promote Mike Carp, who has finished a 20-day rehab in Tacoma. They also have Ichiro’s roster spot to fill, but manager Eric Wedge said no decision had been made.