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Fans describe Japanese baseball experience

TOKYO -- The wait is just about over for the Seattle Mariners, the Oakland A's ... and Major League Baseball and its fans all over the world.

The regular season will officially begin on Wednesday around 7 p.m. in Tokyo, which will be 6 a.m. ET and 3 a.m. PT, when Oakland right-hander Brandon McCarthy throws the first pitch of the regular season, most likely to Mariners leadoff man Chone Figgins, and Opening Series Japan 2012 gets under way in earnest.

Aside from the fanfare of a rabid Japanese crowd, a busy week in the Land of the Rising Sun replete with military visits, a somber Tuesday trip through the tsunami zone north of Tokyo for a baseball clinic and various autograph sessions around this sprawling metropolis, Wednesday's opening game will most of all match up two American League West rivals who are young, hungry and looking to surprise some people this year.

The two-time defending AL champion Texas Rangers and upstart Angels, with new first baseman Albert Pujols on board, are getting most of the love from preseason prognosticators forecasting the AL West, but the Mariners and A's have other ideas after stealthy winters and hard-fought springs.

For Seattle, Wednesday will represent the culmination of an extended spring that still isn't over; the club will return to Arizona after this two-game set to finish off its Cactus League slate. But the team is hoping it means a lot more -- specifically, the continuation in an ongoing progression of building a winner and a perennial contender.

"We played pretty good baseball all spring," Mariners manager Eric Wedge said. "I trust these guys, I trust in what we're doing, I trust in their ability, and when we turn that switch on Opening Day, I'm counting on us being ready to go."

Some things have changed since the Mariners' fourth-place finish in the AL West last year.

Ichiro Suzuki is batting third instead of leadoff. Catcher Jesus Montero, who was brought to Seattle in a trade with the Yankees for pitcher Michael Pineda, is hitting in the middle of the order. The bench has been strengthened.

Young right-hander Hector Noesi, who also came from New York in the Pineda deal, and veteran starter Kevin Millwood will round out the starting rotation behind Seattle's ace, former AL Cy Young Award winner Felix Hernandez, who gets the ball on Wednesday for his fifth Opening Day start.

"Everyone's excited," Mariners outfielder Michael Saunders said. "We're young, we're exciting, and when we get nine guys on the field taking care of business, we're going to be a really good ballclub. We're trying to build a winner in Seattle, and we want to do it as a nucleus of players that will stay together over the long haul."

The A's are heading into this season with a very similar attitude.

Oakland, after all, went 74-88 last year with a young team, then underwent an offseason roster remodel the likes of which fans have seen before from general manager Billy Beane. Oakland said goodbye to young starters Trevor Cahill and Gio Gonzalez, among others, bringing in prospects galore and a Cuban defector, Yoenis Cespedes, whom the team hopes will be a major presence in center field and in the heart of the batting order for years to come.

Attempting to win now while preparing to win in the near future, Oakland has clearly defined priorities in 2012 -- getting second-year leadoff man and second baseman Jemile Weeks a full season of at-bats and seeing what it has in Brandon Allen, Josh Donaldson, Josh Reddick and a revamped pitching staff that includes newcomers Graham Godfrey, Tommy Milone and Tyson Ross.

"I think the talent's here," McCarthy said. "It's a good group of guys that works hard and is very serious about what they're doing."

Serious is a good word, because serious is what will happen starting on Wednesday. The country might be foreign, the playing surface might not be natural grass and jet lag might still be a factor, but the players know that the bell is ringing. The 2012 season is beginning right here in Tokyo.

And when A's manager Bob Melvin talks about his team, he's echoing sentiments that Wedge has been drilling into his charges since the day his pitchers and catchers reported to Spring Training in early February.

"I'm excited about where this team is going," Melvin said. "This could be the start of something that we feel is going to get better each and every year."

Mariners: Hernandez an obvious choice
• Hernandez will make his fifth career Opening Day start for Seattle, having also done so in 2007 against the A's, '09 against the Twins, '10 at Oakland and last season at Oakland. Hernandez will join Randy Johnson (six: 1992-96, '98) as the only pitcher in franchise history to make five or more Opening Day starts. Hernandez's three career Opening Day wins are the most in Mariners history.

• This year marks the ninth time in club history that the Mariners will open the season against the A's, and the sixth time they'll open a season in road grays against Oakland (the previous five came at Oakland Coliseum). Seattle is 5-3 all time on Opening Day against the A's, having won the last three.

Athletics: McCarthy a no-brainer for Melvin
• McCarthy enjoyed a resurgence last year, and he was rewarded for it. Oakland's brass took notice of the right-hander's 3.32 ERA in 2011, and he was such an obvious choice to start Opening Day that Melvin named McCarthy the No. 1 starter in late February.

"I thought it was a natural [decision], based on what [McCarthy] accomplished last year," Melvin said. "With some of the pitchers that we traded away, we had a good feeling that would be the case."

• The other time the A's opened the regular season in Japan was in 2008, when they split two games with Boston. Oakland lost the opener, 6-5, in 10 innings and won the second game, 5-1. Catcher Kurt Suzuki is the only player on the roster who was on the A's Opening Day roster that year. Outfielder Coco Crisp was with Boston in '08.

Worth noting
• The Mariners are 20-15 in season openers, including a five-game Opening Day winning streak.

• McCarthy went 1-3 against the Mariners in four starts last year, but he still managed to carry an ERA of 1.99 vs. Seattle hitters.

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