03/28/12 11:30 AM ET
Ichiro returns to Japan as conquering hero
By Doug Miller / MLB.com
Or maybe it's the fact that he's back playing in his home country of Japan for the first time since he began his legendary Major League career 11 years ago.
Or maybe it's possible that after one statistically-substandard-to-Ichiro-standards season, he's back to the brilliance that everyone expects when he steps into the batter's box and in right field, even at age 38.
Whatever the explanation, the Ichiro who showed up on Opening Day 2012 gave the Mariners, their fans and Japan a reason to rejoice.
Ichiro went 4-for-5, drove in a run and, most importantly, helped his team to a 3-1 win in 11 innings over division-rival Oakland that gave Seattle a 1-0 record and the guarantee of at least a split of the two-game Opening Series prior to the team's return to the United States for another week of Spring Training.
Not bad for a No. 3 hitter.
And not bad in a stadium full of flashbulbs every time he batted, oohs and aahs every time the fans who weren't clicking those flashbulbs noticed the flashbulbs, and raucous roars and cheers every time his bat met a ball.
Which was a lot of times.
"It's very, very exciting to start off approaching these two games," Ichiro said via his interpreter, Antony Suzuki. "It's obviously very special as well. You want to make it very important to you, because this is a two-game-in-a-lifetime thing that we're doing in Japan.
"It's hard to explain in words, because it's all feelings. But trying to be on the same page with the fans is my approach. The fans feel that way, too. It's two games they can see in Japan, me in a Mariners jersey, so I'm trying to approach that and get as close as possible to how they feel."
The feelings were strong on both sides of the field because Ichiro's menacing presence as a hitter was back on this night, and it affected the game. In the pivotal 11th, with the game knotted at 1, Brendan Ryan led off with a double, Chone Figgins bunted Ryan to third, and A's manager Bob Melvin was forced to make a decision.
Would he walk Dustin Ackley, who had already homered in the game, or would he pitch to him?
Melvin chose the latter, which resulted in Ackley's game-deciding single. And after the game, the Oakland skipper said he didn't regret the choice one bit.
"Not with Ichiro," Melvin said. "Not with the game he was having. ... In that situation, I'm not going to put it in Ichiro's hands."
Ichiro, of course, was pitched to after Ackley's hit, and he delivered an RBI single to clinch his first four-hit night since Sept. 9 of last year. It also put a cherry on the top of yet another Mariners record for the right fielder, who had entered the game tied for second with Edgar Martinez in Opening Day hits (13) behind Ken Griffey Jr. (14), but eclipsed that mark by the fourth inning.
The superfecta started with a bouncer in the first inning off Brandon McCarthy's glove that Ichiro had beat out by the time shortstop Cliff Pennington could get a glove on it. It continued in the fourth with a grounder in the hole to short. No play.
The third knock was a hard-hit grounder up the gut, straight into center field. The last one was a patented Ichiro line drive to center.
"It was special," Ackley said. "That's the way he is. He's a guy that's ... he's going to get hits. That's what he does. You saw tonight with four hits, and it didn't seem like that many, to be honest. He's fun to watch, especially here in front of his fans in Japan, and I think that makes it all that much more special, seeing all the lights flash and all that's pretty cool.
"I've never experienced anything like that, but to be out there when he's doing that is pretty special."
The fact that Ichiro is doing it from the No. 3 spot after all those years at leadoff might be even more special. That's what Mariners manager Eric Wedge said, at least.
"That's the first game of 162, but when you talk about Figgins leading off and Ack hitting second and Ichi third and the big guys behind them, we're just trying to scratch out our lineup, and we're trying to make sure that one guy feeds off the other and works off the other," Wedge said.
"Right now, for our team, with where we're at, I feel like Ichiro in the three-hole, it's the right place for him. As Ack said, this guy's a hitter. Figgins up top, with what he's able to do, the way he's able to work the game, and then the hitter that [Ackley] is ... it really pulls it all together. You saw that happen late in the game, you saw it happen early in the game at times.
"I think they complement each other in grand fashion, and we're going to be a very good offensive club this year."
For Ichiro and the Mariners, there will be 161 more games, but only one in Japan.
And the man who was born in Kasugai, Aichi prefecture, in 1973, and played the first nine seasons of his professional career with the Orix Blue Wave of Japan's Pacific League, knows it. His comments after Wednesday's win showed that he's in tune with the powerful emotions that come with all of it.
"I was very happy with how [the fans] reacted, because you could see they were feeling what I was feeling," Ichiro said. "Another thing that got me going is that my teammates said that about the fans, too. They said they like the fans here and the atmosphere and the way they approach the game. Even the A's players said that, too. It was a good experience.
"Thinking about it tomorrow, we only have one day left. This is a moment that will go by like that. And you'll reflect and say, 'That went quick.' That's why I'd like to take the next day as important and I like to go day-by-day, because this is special."