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Monday, March 26, 2012 - Page updated at 09:30 p.m.

In loss to Hanshin Tigers, Mariners learn lesson on and off field

By Geoff Baker
Seattle Times staff reporter

TOKYO — Some lessons about Japanese baseball can be more fun than others.

The Mariners found out quickly that for every fun crowd that takes over a game with its enthusiasm here, there is some relatively obscure Japanese legend capable of doing the same with his bat or pitching arm. There wasn't much of a scouting report given to the team before a pair of exhibition games against the Hanshin Tigers and Yomiuri Giants.

Part of that has to do with the fact these games don't count in the major-league standings and the Mariners have to worry about that more than some informal international challenge. Then again, you'd think somebody would have figured out that Tigers cleanup hitter Tomoaki Kanemoto, who turns 44 in two weeks, is a pretty good hitter given his 430 career home runs and the fact he outlasted one of Cal Ripken's longevity records.

But Mariners pitcher Hector Noesi, only 4 when Kanemoto was drafted, knew nothing at all about what he was getting himself into. Neither did catcher Miguel Olivo, who did his best to guide the young pitcher through a rough second inning in a 5-1 defeat to Hanshin on Sunday, Tokyo time.

"I was checking everything with Olivo," Noesi said. "But we didn't know their hitters. I tried to do my best with what I had."

This clearly isn't just an American thing.

After all, Noesi and Olivo both hail from the Dominican Republic, a country that knows about underdog status and should, in theory, sympathize with others than can't get much respect.

But the story remains the same for baseball in Japan, at least when it comes to how major-leaguers see it. They call it Class AAA, say players here would never hold up over 162 games while pitchers have it easy throwing only once a week.

They quietly mock the intensive workouts done by Japanese teams, which focus heavily on conditioning rather than fundamentals.

Yet it's the Japanese who have won the first two World Baseball Classics, and who have held their own against touring MLB all-star teams. The Hanshin squad even took down the pennant-winning New York Yankees in spring 2004.

Many Mariners did remark about how enthused the Tokyo Dome fans were. Tigers supporters, clad in yellow, packed the left-field bleachers and engaged in continuous singing, chanting and drum banging throughout each plate appearance by the home side.

Michael Saunders likened it to a European soccer crowd. Justin Smoak said "it was really good" to be out there with a large crowd that was so into the game.

Smoak was asked about the Hanshin pitchers that seemed to tie the Mariners in knots. He suggested it may have had something to do with the different ball they use in Japan and which the Hanshin pitchers were allowed to throw whenever Seattle came to the plate.

"Their ball, we got a feel for it before the game, it's kind of like one of our high-school balls," Smoak said. "Big seams, kind of soft, I'd say. Whatever, it was different."

But the arguments are largely the same whenever somebody suggests the two countries are approaching baseball parity.

The major-leaguers always counter with the same points, some more valid than others. That they had to travel overseas to play with little rest in between; or weren't taking the games as seriously as their Japanese opponents.

They'll argue that the Japanese could never find five starting pitchers good enough for any club to make it through a 162-game schedule as a playoff contender. And that an MLB team would win seven or eight of any 10 games in a series with a Nippon Professional Baseball League squad. All that may be true.

But whatever the case, Noesi's "best" wasn't good enough for Kanemoto, whose "world record" of 1,492 consecutive games in which he played every inning was better than even Ripken managed. That streak ended for Kanemoto in April 2010 and a year after that, his string of 1,766 consecutive games played ended as well.

So, Ripken is safe for now, even if Noesi wasn't.

Kanemoto may be getting up there in age. He may be struggling, having entered with a .192 batting average and no extra-base hits aside from two doubles his first 11 spring exhibition games.

But all he needed was one Noesi fastball to rocket a no-doubt, two-run homer into the right-field stands.

"I am relieved to hit a home run before the start of the regular season," Kanemoto quipped.

And the Mariners are relieved they won't have to face him any more.

Kanemoto has half as many home runs as Japan's all-time leader, Sadaharu Oh, who clubbed 868. Major-leaguers will quietly downplay those results, just as they tried to do with Ichiro's numbers when he first burst into their ranks in 2001.

Then, after Ichiro repeated his 200 hits year after year, there was a gradual admission he was indeed Hall of Fame material for Cooperstown and not just Tokyo. The argument would never be definitively settled unless squads from both countries met head-to-head in a true World Series or if Japanese teams gained admission to MLB.

After all, many felt the old American Football League was inferior until Joe Namath led the New York Jets to a Super Bowl win.

For now, the Japanese will have to be content with trying to win these type of games.

As for the Mariners, nothing wrong with getting schooled when it doesn't really count. They'll at least be able to head home saying they gained an appreciation for baseball from another country — both on and off the field.

Geoff Baker: 206-464-8286 or gbaker@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @gbakermariners. Read his daily blog at www.seattletimes.com/Mariners.

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