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Ichiro rocks Tokyo Dome at Mariners' exhibition

Seattle tops Yomiuri Giants in first of 2 games before Opening Day
@gregjohnsmlb
March 17, 2019

TOKYO -- Ichiro Suzuki didn’t make any magic on Saturday night in his first appearance back at the Tokyo Dome since 2012, going hitless in three at-bats in the Mariners’ 6-4 win over the Yomiuri Giants. But the 45-year-old legend made plenty of people happy as a sell-out crowd of

TOKYO -- Ichiro Suzuki didn’t make any magic on Saturday night in his first appearance back at the Tokyo Dome since 2012, going hitless in three at-bats in the Mariners’ 6-4 win over the Yomiuri Giants. But the 45-year-old legend made plenty of people happy as a sell-out crowd of 46,315 celebrated his every move on a flashbulb kind of night.

Ichiro received a loud ovation when he was introduced in pregame ceremonies, with each Mariner player bowing in respect as he walked down the line shaking hands prior to the first of two exhibitions the teams will play this weekend.

Coming to Tokyo 'a great gift' for Ichiro

The crowd, which chanted and sang loudly in support of its hometown Yomiuri club throughout the game, erupted again when Ichiro tracked down a deep drive to right field off the bat of Hayato Sakamoto, the second batter of the game against Seattle starter Mike Leake.

And every time Ichiro strode to the plate, he was greeted with a welcome roar from the orange-clad Yomiuri faithful.

“It certainly was not surprising at all, the support and fanfare Ichiro has had coming back to play here in Japan,” manager Scott Servais said. “He’s really excited about it. He’s having a good time with it. He seems very loose in the clubhouse, in pregame, in the dugout. He’s enjoying it and certainly he should. He’s earned the right and it’s great to see.”

But this spring hasn’t been kind to the 45-year-old Ichiro at the plate, where he’s now 2-for-28 with three walks and nine strikeouts.

“I don’t think Ichiro is under any pressure," Servais said. "He’s certainly earned the right to partake in this series. He’s off to a slow start this spring, but I thought his timing was better today. He just missed a ball he pulled down the right-field line that was foul. I thought his swings were fine and he made a nice catch in the outfield early in the game, so he’ll be in there again tomorrow.”

The Mariners have given Ichiro the opportunity to return to his homeland this spring and he’ll be in the starting lineup for Wednesday’s Opening Day game against the A’s in one of the corner outfield spots, where he’ll no doubt be even more of a favorite as the Japanese fans won’t have their own team to root on in that Major League contest.

While the Mariners aren’t expected to keep Ichiro on their 25-man roster once they have to whittle down from the 28 players allowed for the two-game Opening Series, they’ve given Ichiro and the Japanese fans a unique opportunity and both have embraced the moment.

Ichiro played to the crowd prior to the game while running in the outfield and then signing autographs for some of the luckiest. The Japanese TV broadcast followed his every move and the fans – many wearing Ichiro gear – held their breath in unison during every at-bat.

“I only threw fastballs to Ichiro,” said Giants starter Nobutaka Imamura. “It was a special moment and very good experience.”

Mariners break out the bats late

Seattle’s offense was pretty quiet against the Giants until the seventh inning, when Mitch Haniger and Jay Bruce launched two-run homers off reliever Kazuto Taguchi. Speedy leadoff man Dee Gordon even got into the act in the eighth, ripping a solo shot to right field.

“I had a blast today,” Bruce said. “it was a lot of fun. The crowd was amazing. Much different than Major League baseball back in the States. It was a great experience for me. I’ve really enjoyed being here so far.”

Bruce is having an impressive spring as he bounces back from an injury-plagued 2018 with the Mets. He went 1-for-3 with three RBIs, including a first-inning sacrifice fly, and has hit .424 (14-for-33) with three homers and nine RBIs if the exhibition were added to his Cactus League results.

Haniger hit just .182 (4-for-22) in Arizona, but now has three homers and two doubles in limited time since he sat out part of camp with a sore lower back.

Strickland on target

Closer Hunter Strickland made his first appearance in a game in two weeks and looked strong. The veteran free-agent addition allowed a bloop double to open the eighth, but then recorded a pair of strikeouts and a groundout to preserve the lead.

Strickland’s fastball was clocking about 96 mph (or 154 kilometers per hour on the Tokyo Dome scoreboard) as he showed no rust after missing time with a sore lower back.

“Hunter threw the ball great today,” Servais said. “He had a lot of life on the fastball, his breaking pitch has been outstanding. He’s been executing pitches all spring, riding the ball up in the zone deep in counts. It’s great to see. He hasn’t been out there in a while, but I saw his bullpen the other day before we got on the plane and he looked healthy. So it was nice to get him in the game today heading into the series.”

Up next

The Mariners and Giants play their second exhibition game on Monday at 3 a.m. PT (7 p.m. in Japan) with Felix Hernandez getting the start and expected to pitch about five innings. The game will not be broadcast live in the United States. Hernandez will get one more preseason start in another exhibition against the Padres at T-Mobile Park after the Mariners return to Seattle before making his regular-season debut on April 1 against the Angels in the fifth game of the first homestand.

Greg Johns has covered the Mariners since 1997, and for MLB.com since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB.