There is baseball today. Real baseball. Like, where it counts in the standings and everything. The Mariners and A's are in Tokyo for the first two games of the 2019 season, the fifth time MLB will open the season in Japan. The Mariners will begin their quest to end the longest playoff drought in the majors, after an offseason in which they lost or traded five of their best six players from 2018. The A's will begin their quest to prove that last year's 97-win season wasn't a fluke and return to the postseason.
The strangest sight may be Marco Gonzales starting for the Mariners. This is the first time since 2008 that Felix Hernandez won't draw the Opening Day start for Seattle. He won't start the second game either, as rookie Yusei Kikuchi will get the ball as he returns to Japan, likely to a huge ovation. Mike Fiers starts the opener for the A's. Maybe it's not the most marquee of matchups, but the first game of the season is always a great matchup, no matter the pitchers.
Or maybe the strangest sight is Ichiro Suzuki starting in right field for the Mariners. This is likely his goodbye, after a remarkable 4,367 hits in professional baseball. He's 45 years old and, remember, was removed from Seattle's roster last season after batting an anemic .205 in 15 games. The teams are allowed to carry 28 players for the two games, and the assumption is Ichiro won't be kept on the roster after the final cutdown to 25.
If this is it, what a way to send him out. His career began in Japan in 1992 with the Orix Blue Wave when he was 18 years old. This will be his 28th professional season. Here's a fun factoid. One of Ichiro's teammates on that Orix squad was former major leaguer Carmelo Martinez, who played with Kurt Bevacqua on the 1984 Padres. Bevacqua was once a teammate of Hank Aaron, who played with Ray Mueller, who played with Babe Ruth. Ruth to Mueller to Aaron to Bevacqua to Martinez to Ichiro. Baseball goes on.
Some think Ichiro shouldn't be on the roster. Maybe not, especially because he has struggled in spring training, but there's also the argument that he's earned this send-off:
Hearing lots about how Mariners don't care about winning since they're starting Ichiro. Maybe it helps to be here in Tokyo to witness firsthand, but Ichiro being part of this has been an amazing experience, an incredible tribute to him and huge celebration for his fans in Japan.— Greg Johns (@GregJohnsMLB) March 18, 2019
Will he get one last hit or two? Let's find out with our Opening Day running diary ...
5:36 a.m. ET: Let's baseball! It's Dee Gordon leading off the 2019 season against Fiers in the Tokyo Dome, and he lines out hard to right field on a 1-0 pitch for the first out of the season. What, you expected him to maybe draw a walk? Umm, no. He somehow drew nine walks all of 2018. Your 2019 Mariners leadoff hitter! (Note to self: It's Opening Day. Don't get too melancholy just yet about the Mariners' season. Enjoy the excitement.)
5:42: Fiers whiffs Edwin Encarnacion. Our first strikeout of 2019! There were 41,207 last season. Don't expect that number to decrease this season.
5:47: Goodbye, baseball! Stephen Piscotty crushes a fastball down in the zone to straightaway center for the first home run and first run of 2019. Should have started Felix. There were 5,585 home runs in 2018, which was actually a decrease from the record 6,105 smashed in 2017, so that total may not necessarily increase.
Piscotty is a great sleeper for your fantasy team. He hit 27 home runs and had 41 doubles last season. He had a big second half and is a key factor in that the A's could again have one of the better lineups in the AL.
5:58: After a Chad Pinder bloop single leading off the second, the Mariners shift third baseman Ryon Healy over to the second-base area against Matt Olson, who promptly grounds a ball right to him ... and Healy promptly chucks the ball into left field trying to turn the double play. Healy is the worst kind of modern major leaguer: Power, low average, doesn't walk, can't run, bad defense. That combination of talents was worth minus-0.6 WAR last year.
6:04: Semien with an RBI single to left field to make it 2-0. Remember that season he made like 123 errors at shortstop? He's actually become a pretty good shortstop and was credited with plus-9 Defensive Runs Saved last year. (The A's have a really good infield with Gold Glovers Matt Chapman and Matt Olson manning the corners. That's one reason their pitching staff may be better than it looks on paper.) Healy now turns a 5-4-3 double play as Gonzales escapes further damage.
6:09: Ichiro steps in to a standing ovation and the camera pans to all the fans pulling out their phones to record the moment. Other than the gray in his sideburns, he hasn't changed one bit since his rookie season with the Mariners way back in 2001. He takes a big cut at a 1-0 pitch, but pops out to second base. Dee Gordon follows with an RBI single under the glove of Jurickson Profar to score Tim Beckham with Seattle's first run as Piscotty's throw bounces away from catcher Nick Hundley. I take back everything I just said about Oakland's defense. (Not really. I love their defense, especially Chapman, the Nolan Arenado of the American League. He is deep sleeper MVP candidate after finishing seventh in the voting last year and posting a .961 OPS in the second half.)
6:15: Rickey Henderson is apparently in Japan for the series. Would love to see what he could do in the majors (yes, he's 60 years old, but probably still in great shape and would draw more walks in a week than Gordon might all season).
6:15: Gordon steals second and tries to steal third (the pitch is fouled off), which draws a big yelp of excitement from the fans. Gordon didn't have a good 2018, but he is fun to watch and brings a lot of energy and enthusiasm. I hope baseball's emphasis on power these days doesn't eventually eliminate the Gordon types from the game.
6:24: Domingo Santana with a two-out opposite-field grand slam! I love this Mariners team. They look unstoppable.
6:37: Chapman doubles off the wall in right-center and Khris Davis then slugs a home run into the second row of seats in left-center. Davis has three straight 40-homer seasons, but that's nothing compared to this stat: He's hit .247 four straight seasons, so you can safely say "He's a .247 hitter."
6:44: Tim Beckham draws a walk off of Liam Hendriks, in for Fiers to start the fourth, bringing up Ichiro for his second at-bat. If there's one lesson every player can learn from Ichiro: Do more stretching! He's been on the injured list just once in his career. He fouls off a 3-1 fastball up in the zone, looking like he's trying to jack one out of the park. He fouls the next pitch off his foot and goes through some calisthenics at home plate. Then he fouls the next pitch off his leg. He tugs at his shirt sleeve, points his bat and rips a foul ball down the right-field line. The next pitch is in the dirt and Ichiro takes the walk, a decidedly non-Ichiro result.
By the way, check out Marly Rivera's piece on what Ichiro meant to other Japanese players.
6:50: Gordon with the sacrifice bunt and only a great play by Chapman prevented a bunt single. Mitch Haniger follows with a sacrifice fly. Small ball, baby. Hendriks finally fans Bruce to end the inning after 25 pitches. That's 61 pitches the past two innings for the A's. Aaron Cook once threw a 74-pitch complete game.
7:00: Scott Servais takes Ichiro out of the game. He gets hugs from his Mariners teammates and applause from the A's dugout. He will apparently play Thursday in the second game, so this isn't quite the end for him. Of course, we don't know if he'll retire after these two games or whether the Mariners will keep him on the roster (that seems unlikely). Ichiro wants to play forever -- we all do -- but I have to think these will be the final two games of his career.
7:17: Some fun stuff on Twitter:
Ichiro being removed for Vogelbach is the box score version of the Judge-Altuve photo pic.twitter.com/u3W63rGchf— Michael Clair (@michaelsclair) March 20, 2019
Something just happened in the game. Pinder dives for a ball in left field that he misses by 2 feet and Encarnacion scores to make it 7-4. Pinder also breaks a belt on the play. Maybe Profar has a spare yellow one.
7:20: Tim Beckham makes it 9-4 with a rocket to left field off of Ryan Dull, with the first bat flip of the season to punctuate the blast. Ahh, it's good to have baseball back. Not a good start for the Oakland bullpen that will have to be the strength of the pitching staff.
7:36: Ken Griffey Jr. in the house as well, snapping photos from the photographer's well.
A new gig for The Kid. 😄 pic.twitter.com/D3ycJGEBkq— Seattle Mariners (@Mariners) March 20, 2019
Random aside: It was 79 degrees in Seattle on Tuesday, the warmest winter day in city history. Seventy-nine! (We're heading to the bottom of the sixth. It's still 9-4 and Gonzales has thrown 59 pitches. A's pitchers have thrown 117, walked five batters, hit two and thrown two wild pitches.)
And here's Beckham's bat flip. It's what the kids do these days, old-timers.
WHEN IN ROME. pic.twitter.com/Ltu1NeVgIQ— Seattle Mariners (@Mariners) March 20, 2019
8:00: The Mariners go to the bullpen for the seventh inning and Nick Rumbelow promptly walks the first batter he faces -- with a five-run lead. Pinch hitter Robbie Grossman follows with a base hit. Servais is going to go through a lot of Tums in the late innings this season.
8:05: Rumbelow fans Ramon Laureano, who is now 0-for-4 with three strikeouts. Laureano is a huge key for the A's after an impressive 48-game debut last season when he hit .288/.358/.474 with excellent defense in center field (including a couple impressive highlight-reel throws). He also hit .227 at Double-A in 2017, so his range of outcomes at the plate is wide.
You could see this one coming: Chapman belts a three-run homer to right field to make it 9-7, and Rumbelow's day is done after 22 awful pitches. Look, it's going to be difficult to wrestle an MVP award away from Mike Trout or Mookie Betts or Aaron Judge (my pick) or Francisco Lindor or Jose Ramirez or Jose Altuve or ... man, we have some amazing talent in the majors right now, don't we?
8:20: Fernando Rodney sighting. The first batter Rodney ever faced in the majors was Matt LeCroy, who is actually just 1 year older than Rodney but last played in the majors in 2007. Long live Fernando Rodney and that crooked cap and that changeup. He works around a hit to pitch a scoreless eighth. The A's have six outs left to rally for the dramatic comeback ...
8:34: From ESPN Stats & Info: The A's have three home runs in this game, which they did 32 times last season. Only the Yankees had more games with at least three home runs, with 37. Power, defense and bullpen. That's baseball in 2019, and that's how the A's hope to return to the playoffs.
8:35: Cory Gearrin strikes out Pinder for the first out of the eighth and Servais goes to the bullpen, bringing in lefty Zac Rosscup to face the lefty-swinging Olson. It's probably a one-batter matchup for Rosscup, a move that won't be available in 2020 if the three-batter-minimum rule is deployed. One-batter matchups have been in decline as is, with managers preferring to bring in relievers for full innings of work. (Also, because starters aren't going as deep, you can't burn through your relievers so quickly.)
Rosscup walks Olson on five pitches. This Mariners bullpen is going to be a nightmare. Rosscup stays in to face the switch-hitting Profar, however, and gets a force at second as Profar swings at the first pitch. And now Rosscup stays in to face the right-handed Semien, who grounds out sharply to end the inning. Who needs LOOGYs?
(Did Griffey take this photo?)
8:50: Lou Trivino, whom I will always and forever type Lee Trevino, pitches a 1-2-3 ninth to keep the A's close. Hunter Strickland is the new Mariners closer after spending the past five seasons with the Giants. On the bright side for Mariners fans: Bryce Harper isn't in the A's lineup.
9:00: Strickland does his best Edwin Diaz and throws a 1-2-3 ninth to close it out, striking out Chapman on a nasty 3-2 slider to finish it off.
It wasn't the cleanest of ballgames, but it was one that counted and it was good, and all is right with the world. The Mariners are in first place. Thanks for following along, and may all your baseball dreams come true in 2019.