Welcome to Opening Day! Not the official Opening Day, mind you, but the fake one from Japan, where the Mariners and A’s will be playing two games in a stadium the Japanese lovingly call the Big Egg. It’s fake Opening Day, but the games are real, although for some reason the MLB Network is showing a spring training report on the Mets (Jonathon Niese just showed Al Leiter his grip for a changeup!) rather than a game that actually matters.
But it’s available on MLB.TV so I set the alarm for 6 a.m., turned on the computer and sat down to follow along.
Brandon McCarthy starts for the A’s. McCarthy set a record for most offseason publicity ever for a pitcher who won nine games for a third-place team from a small-market West Coast team. He appeared on the cover of ESPN The Magazine. He wrote a guest column for SI.com. He tweeted clever strings of 140 characters all winter and appeared at a sabermetrics conference during spring training.
McCarthy is a great story, a pitcher who used sabermetric analysis to become a better pitcher as he returned from injuries. (“I didn’t want to suck at baseball anymore," he said.) And he is funny on Twitter. And he married a model. So you have to like the guy. He’s facing Felix Hernandez, so there’s a good chance this game could be 0-0 through nine innings.
Chone Figgins makes the first out of the 2012 season. Let’s just leave it at that. He’s too easy of a punching bag and it’s 6 o'clock in the morning. But an out later, Ichiro reaches on an infield single. His infield hits dropped from 59 in to 2010 to 38 in 2011, so this is a good sign. Unfortunately, I’m pretty sure he’s the only No. 3 hitter in the majors for whom we’ll be breaking down the number of infield hits. The Seattle Mariners, everyone!
Jesus Montero steps to the plate wearing No. 63. I’m not sure this is a good sign. Has there ever been a great player to wear No. 63? Of course not! Apparently Montero wanted No. 21 but that belongs to Franklin Gutierrez. I suggest the Mariners trade Gutierrez. Montero bounces the first pitch to third base. If there’s something that will prevent Montero from reaching his potential as a hitter, it will be his over-aggressiveness at the plate. He drew just 36 walks in 463 plate appearances in Triple-A in 2011.
Mariners announcer Mike Blowers on catcher Miguel Olivo: “They’re going to give him a few more days off this year.”
Every Mariners fan everywhere: “God, we hope so.”
In the bottom of the inning, Yoenis Cespedes steps in for his first major league at-bat: Fastball inside, curveball for a called strike, a big 12-to-6 curve that he pulls off and a 58-foot sinker in the dirt that he misses by about 2 feet. Welcome to the big leagues.
Michael Saunders singles to lead off the inning and steals second. Brendan Ryan grounds a curveball into the hole at shortstop, but Saunders unwisely dashes for third and is thrown out. Ryan is then caught stealing. Thank goodness the Mariners just spent five weeks in spring training working on fundamentals.
The A’s have a third baseman who wears glasses. What, are they so poor their players can’t even afford Lasik surgery?
Dustin Ackley crushes a 1-1 fastball over the center-field fence. Our first run of the season! Ichiro follows with another infield single. He may hit .400 this year. The Mariners broadcast just mentioned Ichiro’s batting average on balls in play in 2010 compared to 2011 (.353 versus .295). I’m telling you, this sabermetric stuff just may catch on.
Oakland counters in the bottom of the inning as Cliff Pennington doubles to lead off and then Kurt Suzuki doubles with two outs, a liner just past the diving Mike Carp in left field. Minus-one on the defensive runs saved chart for Carp.
Jemile Weeks strikes out looking, unhappy with both the two-strike pitch and third-strike calls and slams his bat down on the turf. The Japanese fans yelp in shock, as in Japan players wouldn’t dishonor the umpire with such a display.
Figgins and Ichiro single but the rally dies when Justin Smoak and Montero fail to come through. Is this the right time to mention that the Mariners lost two exhibition games to Japanese teams by a combined score of 14-4 while getting outhit 25-13? Outside of Ackley’s homer, they haven’t hit the ball hard. Their other five hits include two infield hits and two ground balls up the middle.
Pennington singles to start the bottom of the frame and steals second, Oakland’s second steal of the game. A little thing to watch for Hernandez: He used to do an OK job of containing the running game, allowing an average of 16 steals per year from 2006 through 2010. In 2011, that shot up to 31 steals allowed, and it’s not all because of Olivo. Frankly, I think he stopped paying attention and I think most Mariners fans will agree that Felix’s concentration lagged at times last year. It’s not easy to pitch when you know giving up one run may lose you the game. Pennington moves to third on a long fly out but Hernandez works out of the jam with an infield popout (as Ryan makes the catch, the graphic shows that he led all major league shortstops with 17 runs saved) and Josh Reddick’s hard liner that goes right to Carp.
McCarthy cruises through another easy inning. Cespedes pokes a 1-1 curveball over Saunders’ head in center field for a double, a good piece of hitting off a good low-and-away pitch from Hernandez. Considering how bad Cespedes looked earlier against off-speed stuff, a nice adjustment.
Bob Melvin then asks Brandon Allen to bunt. Allen’s last sacrifice bunt came in ... 2006. He pops it up. Bob Melvin, everyone! (Why not send up a pinch-hitter to bunt there?) Eric Sogard, the third baseman with the glasses, lines out to Hernandez and Weeks grounds out. Hernandez escapes another jam.
McCarthy comes out after just 82 pitches. He threw a nice game -- no walks, three strikeouts, really just the one belt-high fastball mistake that Ackley didn’t miss. Ryan Cook comes in, a guy acquired in the Trevor Cahill trade with Arizona, a rookie with a big fastball. 1-2-3. Eight Mariners in a row retired. Hernandez also retires the side in order in what is probably his last inning after 104 pitches.
The Mariners have their 3-4-5 guys up. A’s closer Grant Balfour comes on. Advantage: Oakland. Sorry, I hate to be cynical after just eight innings of the first game of the season, but it’s been two years of games like this for Mariners fans. Hernandez has 27 wins over the past two seasons. In 17 of those wins, he allowed no runs or one run, so he has just 10 wins in games in which he allowed more than one run. Compare that to, say, Justin Verlander; he has 19 wins over the past two seasons in games in which he allowed two runs or more. Both pitchers had 23 starts in which they allowed zero runs or one -- Verlander won all 23.
The Mariners go down in order. Tom Wilhelmsen enters for the Mariners. So there’s a chance they could lose without their best reliever entering the game. Because, you know, you have to save your closer for when you have a lead, even if it means he doesn’t get into a tie game in the ninth inning. What, too early in the season to be complaining about bullpen usage? Wilhelmsen does the job, striking out Cespedes on a big breaker for the third out. Looks like the scouting reports are already out on him: He’s going to see a steady diet of off-speed stuff, that’s for sure.
Bonus baseball! Side-arming lefty Brian Fuentes on for the A’s. He once pitched 55 innings and recorded 48 saves! Three up, three down. Fourteen in a row for A’s pitchers. Mariners tally of hard-hit balls for the game: one. Seattle Times columnist Larry Stone on Twitter: Mariners in midseason form.
Ackley bobbles a hard-hit one-hopper and throws it way. Collin Cowgill runs for Allen. With Sogard up, let’s see if the A’s bunt, hit-and-run or swing away. Sogard takes ball one, fouls off a pitch with Cowgill running. Hit-and-run backfires when Sogard swing through a 2-1 outside fastball. If you don’t run, that pitch is outside and the count is 3-1. Sogard flies out. Weeks strikes out looking again ... and gently places his bat and helmet down on the turf. Only 17 more Mariners-A’s games to go!
After new Oakland pitcher Andrew Carignan fires three fastballs to Ryan, Blowers makes an astute comment: “Carignan looks like he’s pretty proud of his fastball.” He throws and Ryan pounces on it for a leadoff double. Figgins bunts him over. Ackley lines a single -- off another fastball -- into center for the go-ahead run. Melvin brings in lefty Jerry Blevins. Not sure why he didn’t bring in Blevins to face Ackley. Maybe he figured Carignan had the better shot at a strikeout. Ackley steals second and Ichiro follows with a soft liner to center to score Ackley, his fourth hit of the game. I’m telling you ... Ichiro is back! (Wait, it’s only one game? I don’t care. We have to get excited about something. The Mariners just had a two-run outburst.)
Brandon League is on for the save. I told you Eric Wedge should have waited to bring in League until the Mariners got the lead. Pennington flies out. Coco Crisp strikes out looking on a 3-2 fastball. Seth Smith nearly kills League with a line drive that somehow goes between League’s glove and face. A’s still alive. The other Suzuki digs in. League puts him away with a nasty two-strike splitter.
And the first game of 2,430 is in the books. In the end, the big key was the Mariners using just two relievers while the A’s lost once Melvin went to his fourth and fifth guys out of the bullpen. Give Wedge credit for using Wilhelmsen for 25 pitches and two innings while Melvin removed Balfour after 11 pitches and Fuentes after 12. Why managers remove relievers after just one inning when their pitch count is still so low is something I still don’t understand. It’s rote managing without thinking critically about the situation.
Mariners fans are happy. The fans in Japan are happy, as their national hero gets four hits in his homecoming. And we should all be happy: Baseball is back.