A’s, M’s open 2012 MLB season in Japan

The Seattle Mariners and Oakland Athletics lift the lid on the 2012 Major League Baseball season with the start of a brief two-game set in Japan at the Tokyo Dome.

Most sports books monitored by the SportsOptions odds product have opened the Mariners as $1.30 favorites, with the total set at eight runs.

These same two teams had been scheduled to play here in March 2003, but the series was canceled at the last minute due to the threat of war in Iraq. Coincidentally, A’s manager Bob Melvin was the manager of the Mariners back in 2003.

“We’re excited about it,” Melvin said. “And the fact that you’re playing against a team that’s going through the exact same thing, there are no excuses for anybody. I honestly am looking forward to the trip.”

Oakland opened the 2008 season in Japan against the Boston Red Sox, splitting a pair of games.

“We’re thrilled to be back in Japan,” Oakland general manager Billy Beane said. “When they asked who wanted to go, we were the first to put up our hands.”

Perhaps it’s not the best American baseball has to offer with Seattle and Oakland expected to be two of the worst teams in the majors this season.

Seattle is a club that last year lost 95 games, endured a 17-game losing streak and for the third straight season crossed the plate less times than any other team in the American League. Oakland, meanwhile, only avoided the cellar in the AL West because of Seattle, but this offseason traded its two best starting pitchers in Trevor Cahill and Gio Gonzalez, in addition to closer Andrew Bailey.

So, yeah, this isn’t exactly Yankees-Red Sox we are talking about.

But, you’d be hard pressed to not find more excitement for this series than any other. Why? Well how about the return of Ichiro Suzuki, perhaps the most iconic sports figure to ever come out of Japan.

“We’ve never had this opportunity before, so it’s new for me and new for the team,” he said through interpreter Antony Suzuki. “This is something we’ll probably do once in a lifetime, so I look forward to that and would like to take advantage of it.”

Suzuki, of course, left Japan for the United States back in 2001 and instantly became a hit, winning the league’s MVP and Rookie of the Year in his first season, then producing 10 straight years of hitting .300 or better with 200 hits and 25 stolen bases. Last year, though, the 38-year-old superstar showed signs of slowing down, as he batted just .272 and failed to reach 200 hits for the first time in his 11-year career.

This year, the great Suzuki is embarking on a new challenge, as manager Eric Wedge has moved him from his customary leadoff spot down to No. 3 in the order. Suzuki has adjusted nicely this spring, and is hitting .400 with eight RBI through 30 spring at-bats.

Suzuki, though, isn’t the only Japanese star returning to his native land. Utility infielder Munenori Kawasaki and pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma also are returning to Japan.

“I think it’s going to be crazy,” said Mariners ace Felix Hernandez. “We’ve got a lot of Japanese guys here. We’ve got Ichi, who is a big star there. It’s going to be a good experience and it’s going to be fun.”

Hernandez will be on the hill Wednesday following another terrific season. The 2010 AL Cy Young Award winner was his usual amazing self in 2011, going 14-14 with a 3.47 ERA and 222 strikeouts in 233 2/3 innings.

“I want to have a better season,” Hernandez said when pushed. “Last year was not consistent. I’m trying to have a great season and help this team win.”

Hernandez will join Randy Johnson (six: 1992-96, ’98) as the only pitcher in franchise history to make five or more Opening Day starts. However, his three Opening Day wins are the most in Mariners history.

Run support continued to be an issue, as the Mariners scored a major league worst 556 times, while hitting just .233 as a team, also the worst mark of all 30 teams.

The hope is that the addition of Jesus Montero will add some much needed pop to that lineup. Montero was acquired from the New York Yankees in exchange for All-Star right-hander Michael Pineda.

Billy Beane, who reaped worldwide recognition this past year with the box office success of the movie “Moneyball,” wasn’t just jettisoning players this winter and surprisingly won the sweepstakes for highly-coveted Cuban outfielder Yoenis Cespedes, landing him with a four-year, $36 million deal.

The A’s will hand the ball in the opener to righty Brandon McCarthy. After missing all of 2010 he started a career-best 25 games last season, going 9-9 with a 3.32 ERA and set a franchise record for strikeout-to-walk ratio at 4.92-to-1 — 123 strikeouts and 25 walks in 170 2/3 innings.

“To stop and think about it is cool, but I really don’t do that,” McCarthy said of his Opening Day assignment. “My parents are proud, and there are people that are happy for me, and it’s a cool thing personally, but really I’ll be more excited if I pitch up to that level and do everything I’m capable of doing, not just on that day but the entire season.”

Seattle, which has won its last five openers, is 5-3 all time on Opening Day against the A’s, having won the last three.

This series marks the fourth season opener in Japan and the first since the Red Sox and A’s played in 2008 at Tokyo Dome. Since 1999, 10 clubs (Colorado Rockies, San Diego Padres, New York Mets, Chicago Cubs, Texas Rangers, Toronto Blue Jays, New York Yankees, Tampa Bay Rays, Red Sox and A’s) have participated in international openers.

Oakland has been designated as the home team and will bat last in both games of this opening series.


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