The first day of the major league season is only a few days away, and the Seattle Mariners and Oakland A’s arrived in Japan ready to get things started.
The two teams made it to Japan on Friday and hit the ground running in practice sessions on Saturday at Tokyo Dome.
“It’s an honor and a privilege to be here,” Mariners manager Eric Wedge said at a news conference. “I know all the players are excited to be in Japan. Baseball has truly become an international sport, and I think the opportunity to come over here and play Oakland and open this year’s major league season is quite an opportunity.”
The Mariners are a team who should be familiar to most Japanese fans. In addition to being home to Ichiro Suzuki since 2001, Seattle added Japanese pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma to the roster over the offseason.
“I will try to do my best to show the best baseball that I have for the Japanese fans,” Iwakuma said.
Another former NPB star, Munenori Kawasaki, who joined the team as a non-roster invitee this spring, also made the trip.
“Kawasaki had a great camp,” Wedge said. “He made a great impression on all of us with his energy, with his ability. Obviously, he had to come into spring training this year and make a ballclub. He’s still with us here, he’s a part of our club right now.”
The A’s won’t exactly be strangers to Japanese fans, having opened the 2008 season against the Boston Red Sox at Tokyo Dome.
“This is a great opportunity,” A’s general manager Billy Beane said. “We want to thank everybody in Japan who have welcomed us again. We came here in 2008, and we were more than happy to come back again.”
The two teams will face the Hanshin Tigers and Yomiuri Giants in exhibitions on Sunday and Monday. They will square off against each other to open the 2012 MLB season on Wednesday and Thursday.
Mariners ace and 2010 AL Cy Young winner Felix Hernandez and A’s right-hander Brandon McCarthy are expected to toe the rubber in the opener.
“It’s an honor to be here in front of you guys,” Hernandez said. “I’m just looking forward to putting on a good show when I pitch on Opening Day.”
In addition to beginning the season in Japan, MLB is hoping to use the games to aid relief efforts in the Tohoku region, which was devastated by the earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011.
Members of the Mariners and A’s are scheduled to hold a baseball clinic for youth baseball players at Ishinomaki Municipal Baseball Stadium on Tuesday.
“Because I was in that area, I really want to give something back to the local community,” said Iwakuma, who was a member of the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles from 2005 to 2011. “I thought in order to achieve that goal, I should probably be on a major league roster, so I can encourage people all over the disaster area.”
Tazawa sent down
Boston Red Sox pitcher Junichi Tazawa was among the roster moves Friday as he was optioned back to Triple-A Pawtucket, but manager Bobby Valentine hopes he can “cut it loose” in the minors and regain consistency.
In five spring outings, Tazawa has posted an ERA of 3.86 over seven innings.
“I thought if anyone was going down it could only be me but I really wanted to be in the majors a bit longer,” said Tazawa who had Tommy John surgery in 2010 and returned to the majors last September.
“Obviously I am disappointed but I will work hard in the minors starting from tomorrow.”
Valentine said he wants to see more confidence from the 25-year-old.
“He has to cut it loose,” Valentine was quoted as saying by local media. “He’s one step away from being totally back. His pitches have the crispness that we need, but not the consistency.”
“And he has admitted too, there’s just always a little trepidation about going that extra step. And once he does it — a lot of guys have the same thing that I dealt with — once they do it and believe the ligament’s better now than it was before, it’s all downhill.”
Tazawa joined Boston from corporate team Nippon Oil in December 2008. He has a major league record of 2-3 with 7.31 ERA.
Dempster gets nod
Veteran right-hander Ryan Dempster will make his second straight Opening Day start for the Chicago Cubs, facing the Washington Nationals and Stephen Strasburg at Wrigley Field on April 5.
Dempster, 10-14 with a 4.80 ERA last season in 34 starts, got the nod Friday from manager Dave Sveum over Matt Garza.
In the season opener a year ago, Dempster was the losing pitcher against the Pittsburgh Pirates, giving up six runs and six hits in 6⅔ innings.