April 1, 2012 in Sports

Slowly, Mariners must adjust from trip

Larry Stone Seattle Times
Associated Press photo

Could Mariners’ Felix Hernandez be at a disadvantage when regular season resumes?
(Full-size photo)

Millwood solid for M’s

 Kevin Millwood struck out eight in seven solid innings and the Seattle Mariners beat a San Diego Padres split squad 6-1 in Peoria, Ariz., on Saturday night.

 The veteran right-hander allowed one run, on Andy Parrino’s homer, and five hits.

 The Mariners fielded a team of minor leaguers behind Millwood while their regulars took the day to recuperate from a trip to Japan for two regular-season games this past week.

 The Padres had four projected starters in their lineup, with first baseman Yonder Alonso collecting a pair of hits off Millwood.

Associated Press

Anyone who has made the flight to – and from – Japan knows the toll it can take on the body. When that body has to then play professional baseball, the residual effect of jet lag becomes a legitimate cause of concern. Before the Mariners and Athletics, six teams had opened the season in Tokyo, and it appears there was at least some price to pay for traveling nearly 10,000 miles round-trip.

It’s clearly not doing irreparable damage, mind you. The 2000 Mets played in Japan and went on to win the National League pennant and advance to their only World Series in the last 25 years. The 2004 Yankees played in Japan, won 101 games and were a victory away from the World Series before collapsing in the ALCS while up three games to none against the Red Sox. The 2008 Red Sox played in Japan and won 95 games, advancing to the ALCS.

But there have been a lot of slow starts associated with teams that played in Japan, both by teams and individuals. Those pennant-bound Mets won their first game back (they had to get right back into games that count after playing in Tokyo, unlike the current week off that subsequent teams, including the M’s and A’s, are getting), then lost five of six. Their opponents, the Cubs (on the way to a 97-loss season) lost their first three games back, and five of their first six.

The powerhouse 2004 Yankees started 8-11 after returning from Japan. Their opponents, the Rays (en route to 91 losses), got off to a 10-28 start once back from Japan. They also became the first team in MLB history to fall as many as 18 games under .500 and return to .500 in the same season. The 2008 A’s, on the other hand, got off to a great start – 17-10, and were still over .500 as late as July 28 before losing 10 in a row, en route to a 75-86 finish.

Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated, in a column touting the virtues of the trip, did the math and discovered that the six previous teams in Japan played losing baseball in their first 10 games back in North America (29-31) compared to .518 afterward.

Verducci wrote, “They will pay for their trip with jet lag, exhaustion and disruption of the usual rhythms of baseball. What they gain for themselves, especially in the cultural realm, and for the sport far outweigh a few weeks of inconvenience.”

That’s certainly the stance of commissioner Bud Selig, who told me in 2000, reacting to criticism of the trip, “What we’re doing here is what anyone would do in the 21st century. It’s a global economy. It’s not the world of the 1950s or 1960s. I was struck reading some of the critical columns about this trip that it was like they were writing in 1942, when we had isolationism. It’s not that world anymore.

“People say, ‘How dare you play in Japan? It’s a sacred American institution.’ I reject that as out of touch with the time we live in, and irrelevant. Someone told me that once we were in Japan, we’d wonder what took us so long. I think that’s exactly the way we feel.“

Major League Baseball learned from the Mets and Cubs that teams couldn’t just go right back into their regular schedule. So subsequent teams have returned from Japan and eased back in with exhibition games, which seems weird but beats the alternative. Another change since 2000 is that the traveling teams now resume their season against each other, somewhat mitigating the disadvantage of the arduous travel.

But the effects could linger. Joe Girardi, catcher for the Cubs team that opened in Japan in 2000, told The New York Times that “a lot of us woke up at 3:30 in the morning for two weeks after we got back.”

The A’s elected to go home, rather than back to Arizona. They played an exhibition game in Sacramento against their Triple-A affiliate on Saturday night, and will face their rival Giants on Monday through Wednesday before resuming the season against Seattle on Friday at the Oakland Coliseum.

The A’s also opened spring training a week after the Mariners, who opted for the earlier start to prepare for the earlier opening day. And the Mariners still have more travel after leaving Oakland. They head to Texas for four games with the Rangers before finally returning home April 13 to face – Oakland.

Of course, some players, and teams, struggle early even without going to Japan.

As Terry Francona, then Red Sox manager, said in 2008, “We can talk about this until we’re blue in the face. Every time we walk somebody or we make an error, somebody asks did the Japan trip (hurt)? Our job is to play good baseball. When we play good baseball, it’s OK.”

The Mariners are already a team with obstacles to overcome, and the travel to Japan – as rewarding as it was – may well be another.

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