(Editor’s note: This story was originally published in The Seattle Times on April 3, 2001.)
For weeks now, it seems, all of baseball has been waiting for Ichiro to put down a bunt.
He finally did so last night, fueling the winning rally in the eighth inning of the 2001 season opener.
And when he and countryman Kazu Sasaki were done in the Mariners’ 5-4 victory over Oakland on Opening Night at Safeco Field, it was probably tough to tell if there was more joy in the Pacific Northwest or west of the Pacific.
After last year, everyone knew that Sasaki was capable of capping a win with an ironclad ninth, as he did to Oakland to cement Seattle’s comeback from a 4-0 deficit in front of the biggest regular-season crowd in Safeco history, 45,911.
But all spring Ichiro’s bunting abilities were hidden like a stealth bomber’s attack stats. Game after game, one scout after another could only surmise that the Japanese outfielder could bunt, something he confessed he had not done in a game since 1994.
Man, he can.
When Ichiro perfectly dragged the ball down the first-base line after Carlos Guillen drew a leadoff walk, the ball’s placement and the batter’s speed to first led to a throwing error by A’s pitcher Jim Mecir that let Guillen advance to third. Guillen then scored the run that broke a 4-4 tie and gave Seattle round one in a two-team duel that could last all season.
“I’m sure there is some celebrating going on,” Ichiro said of the reaction in Japan to the efforts of himself and Sasaki. “We used to talk back home of being teammates together some day. But to have a hand in a win in our first game together is unbelievable.”
Sasaki was pleased to start the season on a better note than last year, when he struggled early and lost his closing spot for a while.
“I was happy the fans were behind me,” he said. “As far as Ichiro’s night, he was definitely a special player, able to get the rhythm back to our team.”
With Seattle starter Freddy Garcia trying to pitch with only his changeup working, Oakland was in tune early in the game. The bottom third of Oakland’s fine lineup, with five of the A’s eight hits, took the visitors to a 1-0 lead in the third, on Olmedo Saenz’s double, and extended it to 4-0 in the fourth on a single by Ramon Hernandez and a two-run double by Jose Ortiz.
“At that point, we had to get Freddy out of there,” Mariner Manager Lou Piniella said. “But the job our bullpen did the rest of the night was the key to the game. (Brett) Tomko was great, giving us one-hit work over 3-2/3 innings, and so were (Arthur) Rhodes and Sasaki in the late innings.”
Seattle, benefiting from 10 walks issued by A’s pitchers, got one back on Dan Wilson’s single in the fourth, and another on Bret Boone’s sacrifice fly in the fifth.
Ichiro, held hitless his first three times up by Oakland starter Tim Hudson, opened the seventh with a hard ground single up the middle off reliever T.J. Matthews, the first major-league hit ever by a position player from Japan.
Mike Cameron walked for the fourth time, a career high, and on Jim Mecir’s first pitch, Edgar Martinez drove an RBI single to right, one of his three hits. That brought up John Olerud, who drove an RBI single to left-center, and the game was tied.
Guillen led off the eighth with his walk, and on the first pitch Ichiro was called on to bunt. Rushing, Mecir picked it up and threw it away, and the runners ended up at second and third.
“It was an excellent bunt,” Piniella said. “You won’t see better. He didn’t bunt all spring, but it was no secret plan. We were just letting Ichiro get all the swings he could. We knew he could bunt and now everyone else does, too.”
Cameron flied out to medium center and Martinez was walked intentionally to load the bases. Oakland Manager Art Howe then brought in lefty Mark Guthrie to face Olerud, who drove a breaking ball deep to center to bring Guillen in easily.
Sasaki faced only three batters in closing the ninth and Seattle, which went 4-9 against Oakland despite finishing just a half-game behind the Athletics last year, made the first point of 2001 against its division rival.
“It was a great game for Ichiro,” Sasaki said. “But it was a great game for our team, a great way to start our season.”