Ichiro thrills countrymen in opener
TOKYO – Now he shows us.
In a game postponed from nine years ago, played 4,800 miles from where he’s hit leadoff for the last 11 years, following up an idea started eight years ago, Ichiro revealed himself to be baseball’s greatest No. 3 hitter.
After a 4-for-5 Opening Day when there were no other Opening Days, who can argue?
As far as hitting the right notes emotionally, the Tokyo Dome evening was high C above high C for him too.
“The four hits in this atmosphere,” he said, “are feelings that will stay with me.”
The frenzy surrounding him on this trip was enough to scare a mama grizzly with cubs. His move from leadoff to the third spot in the lineup was analyzed more than the Cold War. And this week he and his teammates looked terrible in two exhibition losses to Japanese teams. And fergawdsakes, he’s 38 and washing up.
So all he did was manage his distractions into nothing and alter the game against Oakland just by standing there.
In the 11th inning, with Brendan Ryan on third base after a double and sacrifice bunt in a 1-1 game, baseball logic suggests walking No. 2 hitter Dustin Ackley, who homered earlier, and bringing the infield in to induce No. 3 hitter Ichiro to ground into a double play.
Nope. Maybe some other time. Not on Ichiro Night in Japan.
“He’s a hitting machine,” said Bob Melvin, the A’s manager who was also Ichiro’s manager in Seattle in 2003-04. “No way was I putting the game in Ichiro’s hands then, not with the way he was hitting.”
So he had Ackley pitched to, and he stroked a single that brought home Ryan with a tie-breaking run. After a stolen base, Ichiro brought liftoff to the 44,227 here, mostly to see him, with a liner to center that brought in Ackley for insurance in the 3-1 triumph.
“My approach was to be as close as possible to what the fans were feeling,” he said. “It was very, very exciting.”
Any discerning Mariners fan knows better than to get excited over Opening Day results. They had a five-game winning streak in openers before Wednesday night, and the seasons following four of them were losers. Big losers.
But the takeaway from this little sparkler was that an offensive uptick is more plausible with Ichiro hitting behind Ackley. Yes, it requires leadoff hitter Chone Figgins to return from the dead and for Justin Smoak and Jesus Montero (combined 0 for 9) to come alive.
But one phenomenon at a time, please. The Mariners have one more real game with Oakland Thursday before returning to spring training to collapse from this trip and pull together other details.
Ironically, the idea of hitting Ichiro third, something he did a lot of in his early days as a pro in Japan, began in the U.S. at Melvin’s encouragement.
Mid-season in 2004, with the offense grown stale, Melvin asked Ichiro to bat third.
“He was great about it,” Melvin said in his office before the game. “I told him I hoped it wasn’t going to last long, but I just wanted to mix things up. I asked him his feelings, and he said, ‘I’ll do whatever you want me to do.’
“I talked to (then-GM) Pat Gillick about it, and he was for it too. Everyone was supportive. I was uncomfortable because he was arguably the greatest leadoff hitter of all time. I never really thought it would be long-lasting thing. Sometimes a change of scenery is best for everyone.”
It lasted 10 days before Melvin put him back. But no one who has watched the Mariners struggle has forgotten it.
The move is taking place partly out of desperation and partly because second baseman Ackley is pretty good. His fourth-inning homer was the Mariners’ only offense until things came together in the 11th.
Answering a silly question about being baseball’s home run leader, Ackley flashed some humor.
“Yeah, that was the first thing I thought about when I got back to dugout, that I was the major league home run leader,” he said. “Really, for me to even play on baseball’s Opening Day was awesome, and to hit a home run, and do it in Japan … it was awesome.”
As he talked, Ackley couldn’t get enough of “awesome.” The A’s, conversely, had entirely too much of Felix Hernandez, who went midseason on them with a single run on six hits over eight innings and 104 pitches.
“Everything came together for us,” said Hernandez. “We were awesome.”
So many awesomes were flying around that the conversation had to turn back to Ichiro, who is rarely big on superlatives. But now, of course, he has to top 4 for 5 in the second game because … well, it’s Japan and he’s Ichiro.
As someone who proved again that he is able to step from the whirlwind to concentrate on the moment, he declined to connect any dots between games.
“I have one more day left here,” he said. “I prefer to take it day to day.”
Maybe he can take to No. 3 for a whole year.