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Monday, March 26, 2012

News photo
Welcome home: Ichiro Suzuki greets spectators at Tokyo Dome on Sunday before playing his first game in Japan as a member of the Seattle Mariners. Ichiro went 1-for-4 as the Mariners lost 5-1 to the Hanshin Tigers. AP

Tigers outshine Ichiro

Hanshin gatecrashes star's Japan debut with Seattle

Staff writer

Every at-bat by Ichiro Suzuki was accompanied by hundreds of flashbulbs going off all over Tokyo Dome. Unfortunately for the Seattle Mariners, the only hit worth saving came off the bat of the Hanshin Tigers' Tomoaki Kanemoto.

Kanemoto hit a two-run home run in the second inning, and starter Minoru Iwata threw five scoreless frames to help the Tigers beat the Mariners 5-1 in an exhibition on Sunday in front of 42,137 at the Big Egg.

"Up until yesterday, the team hadn't been playing that well," said Tigers manager Yutaka Wada. "Our players were looking forward to this game, because of the different circumstances. So they were really determined to play in this game.

"After playing almost 20 games in spring training, we finally feel our switch was turned on."

Ichiro singled in his first at-bat and finished 1-for-4. Ichiro was playing in Japan with the Mariners for the first time.

"I think it's great for all these guys," Mariners manager Eric Wedge said, referring to the team's three Japanese players, Ichiro, pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma and infielder Munenori Kawasaki.

"All of them, they have an opportunity to come back to play where they played for so long, for so many years and were so popular. Obviously, Ichiro has been on another level for a lot of different years. I think it was evident, when all those guys were introduced today, that it was special for the fans and special for them too. I think when you saw those flashbulbs firing when he came up to home plate, I think that says it all."

Ichiro returns to Japan in the midst of a productive spring. He's batting .400 with six runs scored, two doubles, two home runs and eight RBIs in 10 games.

This day, however, belonged to the Tigers.

Former Mariners player Kenji Johjima drove in a run for Hanshin in the second inning and Takashi Toritani and Kohei Shibata also finished with RBIs. Kanemoto finished 1-for-2 with two RBIs, while Craig Brazell had a single and a pair of doubles.

Iwata allowed six hits and struck out five to record the win.

"I didn't have the statistics from last year about the Mariners," Iwata said. "All I did was just try to throw my pitches and do my best."

Seattle starter Hector Noesi took the loss after allowing three runs on six hits over five innings.

Kawasaki doubled in his only plate appearance for Seattle.

"I was very, very excited and was really glad I was able to play here," Kawasaki said.

Casper Wells drove in the Mariners' only run with a homer in the ninth off Hanshin closer Kyuji Fujikawa.

Japanese fans got the chance to see Ichiro in his new spot in the three-hole of the Seattle lineup. In 1,733 starts with the Mariners, Ichiro had batted leadoff 1,720 times. He will be used primarily in the third spot in the lineup this year.

"I felt like it was best for the ballclub for Ichiro to hit third," Wedge said. "It's no more or less than that. I also wanted to get Chone Figgins going in the leadoff spot. . .

"I felt like with Ichiro, he's a hitter, first and foremost. Arguably, you have your best hitter in the middle of your lineup, particularly in the number three-hole. With that, I think the guys ahead of him and the guys behind him, which in his case is the two-hole and the cleanup hitter, are going to be better off, and I think Ichiro is going to be better off in that role."

Wedge expects to see Ichiro thrive in the third spot.

"He's taken to it like you'd like to see him take to it," Wedge said. "I don't need him to do anything differently. I just want him to define what that means, hitting third, as he sees it. He's a smart baseball guy, and he understands what the responsibilities of the three-hole hitter are. He's had a fantastic spring, and he's swinging the bat like you'd like to see him swing the bat."

Ichiro is currently tied for second in club history with 13 Opening Day hits, one behind Mariners legend Ken Griffey Jr. The Mariners open the MLB season against the Oakland Athletics on Wednesday at Tokyo Dome.

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