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