Mariners win opener in Japan
The Mariners scored two runs in the top of the 11th inning to beat Oakland, 3-1, in Tokyo.
Seattle Times staff reporter
TOKYO — Two players at opposite ends of their careers felt the jitters and the joy of what a season debut can bring.
And whether it was Dustin Ackley playing his first Opening Day of any kind, or Ichiro's night to remember in his homeland on Wednesday, the Mariners were thrilled to see an all-star of the past and one of their biggest future hopes deliver when it mattered. Ackley and Ichiro notched a pair of run-scoring singles in the 11th inning to give the Mariners a 3-1 win over the Oakland Athletics on a night the fans at the Tokyo Dome won't soon forget.
Ackley was the run producer the Mariners needed, belting a solo home run in the fourth inning and then driving in Brendan Ryan from second with the tiebreaker in extras. But that storyline took second billing to the four singles Ichiro produced in front of a pro-Mariners crowd of 44,227 that had come largely to salute a national hero they'd never seen play live in the majors before now.
"I was very happy with how they reacted," Ichiro said, through interpreter Antony Suzuki, about the crowd that cheered him with each introduction and went wild with every hit. "Because you could see that they were feeling what I was feeling."
Tom Wilhelmsen pitched two shutout innings of relief for the win while Brandon League picked up the save. It was the sixth consecutive win by the Mariners to open a season.
Ichiro has talked this week about how special it was for him to finally be playing in Japan again after leaving the Orix Blue Wave in 2001 to play in Seattle. After a planned 2003 trip by the Mariners was aborted because of the Iraq war, this might be the final time for fans to see him play in person.
"You wanted to take it very importantly because this is a two-games-in-a-lifetime thing that we're having here in Japan," he said.
And take it seriously he did, reaching base on infield singles off A's starter Brandon McCarthy his first two times up. The next time, he ignited the fans again with a hard grounder to center field in the sixth.
Through it all, he tried to soak in the experience.
"It's hard to explain in words because it's all feelings," he said. "But trying to be on the same page with the fans is my approach. The fans feel that way too, that these are two games in which they can see me in Japan in a Mariners jersey.
"And I'm trying to get as close as possible to what they feel."
But other than Ackley's home run, the Mariners could get nothing more across. The A's had tied it off Felix Hernandez in the bottom of the fourth when Kurt Suzuki doubled past a diving Mike Carp in left field
Hernandez went into lockdown mode after that, working through eight innings on 104 pitches while striking out six. As has so often been the case, though, the Mariners failed to add to his solid mound work with any runs.
"We needed to get deeper into the ballgame to get into the flow of it," Mariners manager Eric Wedge said. "And I think Felix led the way with that. I felt like he was better later than he was earlier."
The Mariners needed some defensive plays in the end just to avoid losing a very winnable game. Carp made a leaping catch at the wall in the ninth inning to rob Josh Reddick of an extra-base hit with Wilhelmsen on in relief.
Ackley then made a throwing error that put the first batter on in the 10th. Speedy Collin Cowgill came on to pinch-run and tried to steal second base.
But Miguel Olivo made a rocket throw to the bag to nab the runner in time, with shortstop Ryan holding on to the ball as Cowgill plowed into his legs. Ryan was slow to get up and sported an ice wrap around the leg after the game.
Ryan was still healthy enough to continue, though, and lined a double to left-center to lead off the 11th inning against Andrew Carignan. Chone Figgins moved him up to third with a sacrifice bunt and then Ackley delivered off Jerry Blevins to put Seattle in front to stay.
"It's awesome," Ackley said. "To have a chance to drive in the go-ahead run in extra innings, that's an opportunity you don't get too many times."
Despite all he did last season, his June debut meant this was indeed Ackley's first season opener.
"It was a great experience," he said. "Just to be playing on opening day is awesome and to actually have a good game during it makes it that much more special."
But the night wasn't finished yet.
Ichiro had one more chance to salute the fans, who raised the stadium's volume even louder as he stepped to the plate after Ackley's hit. Moments later, he lined his fourth hit of the night into center field.
After the game, Ichiro talked about how even the A's players had come up to him during the game and complimented the fans at the ballpark for their warmth toward them and being so into the action. He said it made him feel a special connection and want to do more.
"More than the four hits, it was more the atmosphere," he said. "Being able to enjoy the atmosphere with the fans, with the same feelings, that was special to me. That's what will stay with me."