BY Art Thiel 02:27AM 03/25/2012

Tokyo Blog: Kawasaki's motor impressive

In his return to Japan, Munenori Kawasaki, the Mariners’ new backup infielder, made a splash bigger than Ichiro in an exhibition game Sunday.

In his first at-bat as a Mariner in his native land, Munenori Kawasaki greets shortstop Yamato after hitting an eighth-inning double Sunday at the Tokyo Dome. / Drew Sellers, Sportspress Northwest

TOKYO –For as much as Munenori Kawasaki idolizes his Mariners teammate and countryman, Ichiro, he emulates him not at all.

Extroverted as Ichiro is introverted, clownish as Ichiro is serious, Kawasaki Sunday was hailed as equally as the national hero by the sellout Tokyo Dome crowd – even a little more.

Maybe it was because the 30-year-old backup infielder did a little more – a double, against a single by Ichiro. Maybe it was because the eighth-inning two-bagger was unexpected.

“Unexpected” nearly has been his nickname throughout spring training. Signed as a minor league free agent,  Kawasaki seems to have made the final roster not only on talent, but personality, which also was on display after the game, a 5-1 exhibition loss to the Hanshin Tigers of Japan’s Central League.

“Very, very, very happy,” Kawasaki said loudly in the post-game interview room, beaming as he exhausted most of his English vocabulary in front of a large contingent (is there another kind?) of Japanese media. “I enjoy myself now.”

Mariners manager Eric Wedge was next to to him at the table, upon which he slammed his palm after Kawasaki’s exultation, smiled and said equally loudly, “Yes!”

Since the game outcome didn’t count for anything, giddiness was not misplaced, and in fact is irresistible when it comes to Kawasaki.

“He’s been fantastic all spring,” said Wedge. “He did what he had to do to make the club. And he gives us a lot more than just on the field.”

Beside hitting .387 in the spring with 10 RBIs and an .828 OPS, Kawasaki has the kind of motor Wedge loves, even if he doesn’t understand the sounds it makes.

“I am surrounded by great players and great staff,” Kawasaki said through an interpreter. “I can stay something stupid in Japanese and they always are there for me. I am so proud to be a part of this baseball team.”

He replaced Dustin Ackley at second base in the sixth inning, but probably is going to see more action during the season at his primary position, shortstop, backing up Brendan Ryan. A member of Japan’s 2006 World Cup championship team as well as a member of the 2008 Olympic team, Kawasaki was well known and popular in Japan but a variety of injuries and illnesses have compromised his career.

Healthy now, he took a chance that he could handle a leap across the pond, landing in Seattle because Ichiro, nine years older, has been a lifelong hero and because the Mariners needed a cheap backup who was better than Luis Rodriguez.

He joins pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma, who will start Monday against the Yomiuri Giants in the second and final exhibition game here, as the latest imports from a nation that contributes more to the Mariners than any other big-league roster.

Whether his energy will last is unknowable, but the investment was small and the upside seems far larger than it did a month ago. He may ride the glow from Sunday for the rest of the season.

BAD FLASHBACK — After clobbering the ball for the Arizona portion of spring training, the Mariners reverted to their offensive feebleness of the past two seasons, getting only a ninth-inning home run from Casper Wells to avert a shutout in a 5-1 defeat at the hands of the Hanshin Tigers.

Tigers starter Minoru Iwata gave up six hits and no runs in five innings. One hit was to Ichiro, who lined a single down the left field line in his first at-bat, which drew much applause and many camera flashes from fans seeing Ichiro in a Mariners uniform since he left the Orix Blue Wave after the 2000 season.

But Justin Smoak, batting clean-up, hit into a double play that represented well the Seattle offense for the afternoon. Ichiro never nudged the ball out of the infield thereafter.

Except for a terrible third inning, Mariners starter Hector Noesi did all right. But in that inning, he gave up a double, a two-run home run, a walk, a balk and hit a batter. He threw 76 pitches in five innings and gave up six hits and three runs.

AUDIO AMBIANCE – True to forecast, the left field bleachers in the  Tokyo Dome crowd were animated by well-choreographed chants and cheers for every Hanshin batter, while the remaining 30,000-plus were largely library-silent until something happened.

It wasn’t bad or wrong, just different than the general boisterousness found at many MLB parks. But give them credit — no vuvuzelas of World Cup soccer infamy.

And for fans of the Mariners’ animated hydro races on the video board, the Japanese equivalent is a footrace around the bases by three mascots. At least the Mariner Moose held up Seattle dignity by sliding home first.


YourThoughts

  • Noelhiga

    I’m old enough to remember when it was the media that got graded for how closely their mock drafts predicted the real thing, not vice versa. Does anyone really believe that Mel Kiper, despite his impeccable hair, really knows more about what it takes to make a successful professional football player? When it comes to picking hair care products, I’ll go with Mel. When it comes to football players I’ll take Pete and John every time.

  • Stevo00

    Very inciteful comment Art. I missed the ESPN/NFL Network shows that explained how some of the cant miss draft picks in 2011, didn’t perform as expected.

  • Guest

    Infinitely better insights than what we get from the national media.

    This…  Seattle “just values players differently than almost every other team. They get a feeling on a guy and it doesn’t matter if they’re the lone wolves – they’re going to take the guy no matter what anyone else thinks.”

    ….is something I really like. I like the job PC/JS are doing with the roster and how the team plays. Great time to be a Seahawk fan!

  • jafabian

    Sounds as though Irvin will have a specific role on the team and is more than qualified to fill that role.  IMO, something of the Rufus Porter kind of role and we all know how awesome Porter was.  I do like how Art talks about emulating Cortez Kennedy and Dave Brown and not go down the road that Koren Robinson and Jerramy Stevens went down.  I’m not sure todays pro athletes put that as high on the priority list that Tez and Cap’n Brown did.

  • CentralScrutinizer

    I’m going to lean against Irwin becoming the next Stevens/Robinson.  Those two were coddled in HS, coddled in college (Stevens was an unconvicted rapist, for God’s sake), and thought that their talent entitled them to success in the pros, regardless of what they did off the field or how many meetings they missed.

    As one who has had his own behavior carry him almost to rock-bottom, and who has worked his way out of that trouble on the football field, Irwin is four and a half years removed from any serious “problem behavior” (given the delivery-sign incident was thrown out of court).  It wasn’t swept under the rug, he had to confront it, deal with it, and humble himself….kind of like Mike Williams did after eating his way out of the league and then training his way back into it.

    I’m more concerned that he won’t develop into an every-down player, but when it comes to that….In Pete I Trust.  Irwin’s first step is bottled lightning, but the rest of his game is exceptionally raw.  If Carroll can turn him into an every-down defender, he’ll have proven his mettle as a great defensive coach….again.

  • Soggyblogger

    Well, Art, you are almost caught up. I expect your next piece to move on from the character issues altogether. Each piece you write on Irvin gets a little closer to the truth. 

  • Richardfg7

    I have a ton of respect for this kid as far as the person he is. He was born in a tough spot and dug himself out of it. It’s going to take a couple more years but Coach Carroll will be recognized as one of the all-time great coaches in the NFL . Just like he is in the college ranks. There will always be those that criticize him after there pet team is taken apart by the Seahawks.

  • sadamahuga

    interesting how the kid is already convicted, but the verdict will be not guilty by the end of the season because his play is gonna set him free.