Opening Dawn: A's, Mariners get started early
It's 6:10 a.m. on a Wednesday on the East Coast, which can only mean one thing:Opening Day, baby! It's A's vs. Mariners, live from the Tokyo Dome (and don't you just love the lack of advertising in the stadium name?) via the magic of MLB.TV (now that's how you advertise, kids), and, for the betterment of a sleeping society, I chronicled it all: First inning For some reason, the team on which Ichiro Suzuki resides is the away team for today's proceedings. Whatever. At least it means Ichiro will get to be the first batter of the 2012 season in his native land. Oh, wait. I almost forgot. Ichiro's no longer a leadoff hitter. He's a No. 3 hitter, and we must all wrap our heads around this new reality.
Besides, the Mariners have a capable replacement for Ichiro's leadoff responsibilities in Chone Figgins. Granted, it's been a few years since Figgins was a relevant solution for such a job, and he hit just a buck-eighty-eight last year. But did you realize Figgins hit a whopping .400 down the stretch last season? I mean, it was four games, 10 at-bats. And then he hurt his hip on Aug. 2 and didn't play again. But still ... .400!All right, so it's Figgins vs. Brandon McCarthy with the first pitch of your 2012 Major League season. And Figgins grounds out. So much for that hot streak. Next batter is Dustin Ackley, the Mariners' stud second baseman. And he grounds out, too. McCarthy is, ahem, on a roll. The ground balls are apropos outcomes for McCarthy. He had the best Fielding Independent Pitching mark (2.86) of any starter in the American League last season, largely on the strength of his 46.7 ground-ball percentage. At the end of '09, McCarthy, a former highly touted prospect who had seemingly flamed out, reinvented himself by incorporating the two-seam fastball into his repertoire. And last season, he rode it to all those ground balls and a sneakily good season for the A's. This could be the season when he truly cracks his way into the national consciousness, especially now that, two batters into 2012, he has an amazing 100-percent ground-ball mark. Alas, Ichiro messes with McCarthy's mojo by singling through the left side for the first hit of the season. Boy, wouldn't that ground-ball base hit have looked good in the leadoff spot? Instead, Ichiro is stranded as Justin Smoak strikes out. In the bottom of the inning, Felix Hernandez takes the hill. And his mere presence can only mean the Mariners' bats won't do much today. They scored two runs or less in 15 of his starts in his AL Cy Young Award season in 2010 and 14 of his starts last year. The guy gets less support than Ron Paul. But King Felix does what he does best: He posts a scoreless inning. Second inning We get our first look at Jesus Montero in an M's uniform, and this at-bat will undoubtedly determine who got the best of the January swap with the Yankees. Michael Pineda's fastball velocity has been a topic of conversation all spring, so it would appear the M's have the upper hand at the moment. But Montero grounds out, leading me to the obvious conclusion that there are no winners here. Speaking of new acquisitions, in the bottom of the inning, the A's Yoenis Cespedes comes to the plate for his first Major League at-bat. The dude can leg press 1,300 pounds, can bench 350, can hit home runs that start in his native Cuba and land in Cancun. But he can't solve "Bernandez," who strikes him out to end the inning. Third inning Not much to report here, so I'll instead just make the obvious remark that Eric Sogard's eyeglasses are awesome. Fourth inning Ackley leads off. And if you're looking for a reason to believe the M's will score more than 400 runs (or whatever ridiculously low total they've averaged the last two seasons), look to this guy. He got his rookie year out of the way, and now he presumably has better lineup protection with Ichiro hitting behind him. And wouldn't you know it? Just as the announcers are talking about McCarthy's "super sinker," he leaves one up in the zone, and Ackley smacks it over the center-field wall. It's 1-0, Mariners, the Tokyo Dome is rocking and the M's (for this one shining moment in time) lead the Majors in home runs. Ah, but the A's answer back later in the inning, when Cliff Pennington doubles and Kurt Suzuki (the least popular Suzuki in the building) drives him in. We're all tied up. Fifth through ninth innings />Fifth through ninth innings Suffice to say the pitchers are ahead of the hitters. Or maybe the M's and A's offenses are just up to their old tricks. In any event, not much to see here, aside from Cespedes' first career hit. It was a seventh-inning double that bounced off the outfield wall. Somehow, the wall didn't come crumbling down. There were also some nice defensive gems. Jemile Weeks, the exciting young A's second baseman, made a terrific stop of a high-hopper to the right side to steal a single from Justin Smoak in the top of the ninth, and Mike Carp made a leaping catch at the wall to rob Josh Reddick of extra bases in the bottom. Hernandez and McCarthy were both terrific, too. And McCarthy's seven innings were a great start to what could be a big contract year for him, as he'll reach six years of service time and be eligible for his first round of traditional free agency. Keep an eye on him, and say a little prayer that the M's bats give King Felix a little more love. Well, we got up early and we're all heavily caffeinated, so I can think of no better outcome than ... you guessed it ... extra innings. 10th inning The hits keep (not) coming in extras. Brian Fuentes sets down the side in order in the top half, and Tom Wilhelmsen holds the A's scoreless in the bottom half. Wilhelmsen's is one of the more unlikely baseball stories you'll ever hear. The guy wasted his raw talent by walking away from the game after a marijuana suspension (breaking his father's heart), spent five years working as a bartender and then decided to lace 'em up again. Last year, he broke camp with the Mariners, and here he is pitching the 10th inning of Opening Day in Japan. Pretty cool stuff. 11th inning Andrew Carignan is pitching for the A's, and I'm embarrassed to say I have no idea who that is. But a quick baseball-reference.com search uncovers that he's struck out 11.7 batters per nine innings in his Minor League career, so color me intrigued. Alas, this is not Carignan's night (or morning, for that matter). Defensive whiz Brendan Ryan provides some offense with a leadoff double. Figgins (1-for-4 in his newly initiated return to glory) puts down a sacrifice bunt to move him over. And then our main man, Ackley, comes through in the clutch with a single to center to give the M's the go-ahead run. That's all for Carignan, and in comes Jerry Blevins. Ackley swipes second, and then hometown hero Ichiro bounces a single up the middle. As Ackley streaks toward home, the wily Ichiro gets caught in a rundown en route to second, allowing Ackley to score before the out is made. The Mariners go up 3-1, and Ichiro is now batting .800 in his new role as a No. 3 hitter. This might do wonders for his popularity in Japan. In the bottom of the inning, Brandon League is nearly decapitated by a Seth Smith single, but he retires the side to end it. There it is, folks. Your 2012 opener. A taut, tight pitchers' duel with a big blast from a rising star and a huge performance from a local legend. What more could you ask for ... besides a later start time? Welcome back, baseball. Now go get some sleep.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.