Baseball

Ichiro impresses in outfield against Giants, will start in MLB opener

by Jason Coskrey

Staff Writer

A rush went through the crowd as Ichiro Suzuki settled underneath the ball Shunta Tanaka hit high into air in the third inning.

The fans cheered when the ball nestled into Ichiro’s glove and the volume went way up when he fired an absolute strike from right field to third base.

No matter that Alex Guerrero, who clapped a little himself at second, probably wasn’t running anyway, even on a 45-year-old Ichiro. The fans had been yearning for some glimpse of the old Ichiro and that throw — even without Terrence Long there to be tagged out — was good enough.

There’ll be another blast from the past when the season opens on Wednesday, when Ichiro will be in the starting lineup.

Ichiro, however, went hitless again at the plate on Monday, but home runs by Mitch Haniger and David Freitas pushed the Seattle Mariners ahead late in a 6-5 win over the Yomiuri Giants in the final exhibition between the two teams at Tokyo Dome.

“He’s still in very good shape,” Giants manager Tatsunori Hara said. “He showed that with his throw from the outfield tonight. That reminded us of his true skills.”

Ichiro was again the center of attention throughout the night. The fans urged him on during each at-bat and let out sighs each time he failed to get a hit. He grounded out, struck out looking and flew out to center in his three at-bats.

He’s struggled at the plate during the spring. He arrived in Japan 2-for-25 and went 0-for-6 in two games against Yomiuri.

Mariners manager Scott Servais, however, said Ichiro will be in the lineup against the A’s when the MLB regular season begins on Wednesday at Tokyo Dome.

“Ichiro is going to start for us in the first games against the A’s,” Servais said. “He’s playing fine in the outfield, obviously he showed plenty of arm strength tonight on that one throw to third base. He’ll start the game and we’ll see how it plays out from there.

“I’m excited for him. It hasn’t been a great spring training for him offensively, but if there’s anybody who can turn it on for a few days it’s certainly Ichiro.”

At the other end of the spectrum, Haniger continues to impress. He homered in both games of the exhibition series against Yomiuri. His two-run shot on Monday night banged off the JR East advertisement above the stands in left-center.

“I always feel like the more at-bats I get, the more I get in the groove,” Haniger said. “So just looking forward to playing everyday and getting as many at-bats as possible and just making the small adjustments from at-bat to at-bat and pitch to pitch. I’m just trying to learn from the previous pitch, the previous at-bat and try to build off one after another and string together good plate appearances.”

Seattle also beat the Giants 6-4 on Sunday and swept the two-game series against Yomiuri.

“It was a good series,” Servais said. “It was good for our guys to get used the atmosphere here at the dome and obviously the Giants are a very good team. So I expected competitive games and that’s what we got.”

Omar Narvaez got Seattle on the board with an RBI double in the third and Tim Beckham doubled to center to bring in two more later in the frame to make the score 3-1.

The Giants surged ahead in the fourth, scoring four runs off Mariners starter Felix Hernandez to take 5-3 lead. Yoshiyuki Kamei drove in the first run, Tanaka doubled in two more and Ginjiro Sumitani added a sac fly.

Then Seattle turned on the power.

Haniger was up first. With Dee Gordon on first the All-Star outfielder crushed a ball from Toshiki Sakurai, who is entering his third NPB season, sending it into the seats in left-center to tie the score at 5-5 in the seventh.

Freitas, celebrating his 30th birthday, did the honors in the eighth, hitting a tiebreaking homer to left before getting mobbed by his teammates in the dugout.

For the Giants, the game was a good chance for some young arms to get some experience. Hara said the Giants were having a bullpen day and sent out a number of young relievers.

“Based on last season some of our relievers are on the rise,” Hara said. “We also have new pitchers who weren’t in the bullpen last season. So it’s a young bullpen in that sense. But I expect a lot from them this season.”