By Stephen Wade / Associated Press
TOKYO — Ichiro Suzuki drew the loudest ovation back home in Japan and Domingo Santana delivered the biggest hit, launching a grand slam that led the Seattle Mariners over the Oakland Athletics 9-7 Wednesday in the Major League Baseball opener.
The game at the Tokyo Dome marked the earliest opening day ever — the summer sport actually started on the last day of winter. No doubt, most fans in North America were sound asleep when Oakland’s Mike Fiers threw the first pitch at 2:36 a.m. PDT (6:36 p.m. local).
A year after the Cubs’ Ian Happ homered on the very first pitch of the season, the ball again was flying.
Tim Beckham also homered as several Seattle newcomers excelled. Khris Davis, who led the majors with 48 home runs last year, Stephen Piscotty and Matt Chapman connected for the A’s.
A packed crowd of 45,787 was buzzing for its favorite star, sending cheers, chants and camera flashes for Ichiro bounding all around the park. Signs and Ichiro jerseys were plenty, too.
At 45, Ichiro became the second-oldest position player to start an opener, only a few months younger than Julio Franco was for Atlanta in 2004.
Batting ninth and playing right field, Ichiro popped up and worked a walk his two times up. After taking his defensive spot in the bottom of the fourth inning, he was pulled to another ovation, with his Mariners teammates gathering in the diamond for hugs.
Ichiro is expected to play again Thursday when the two-game series finishes, and that might be the end of a sensational pro career that began in Japan in 1992 when he was 18. He stopped playing last May to become a Mariners special assistant — after totaling 4,367 hits on both sides of the ocean — and struggled in spring training this year.
Santana, one of many Mariners new to the lineup, had no trouble at the plate. His opposite-field grand slam capped a five-run burst in the third for a 5-2 lead and Beckham’s drive in the fifth made it 9-4.
Beckham got three hits. Also making a nice debut for Seattle were Jay Bruce, who singled for MLB’s first hit of the season, and Edwin Encarnacion, who scored twice.
The Mariners won for the 12th time in 15 openers. They also beat the A’s in 2012 when MLB last started in Japan.
Seattle starter Marco Gonzales hung in for six innings, allowing three earned runs and seven hits, and got the win. Felix Hernandez had started the last 10 openers for the Mariners.
Hunter Strickland pitched a scoreless ninth for a save in his first game for Seattle. Edwin Diaz, who led the majors with 57 last year, was traded with Robinson Cano to the Mets in the offseason.
Fiers, making his first opening day starter at 33, was hit hard for three innings and took the loss.
Not this time
After a lot of offseason talk about improved pace of play, the opener took 3 hours, 24 minutes. … The Mariners had held opponents to no more than three runs in their past 12 openers, an MLB record.
Mariners: C Omar Narvaez got stung in the bare thumb on a fastball right down the middle after an early cross-up with Gonzales. Narvaez was checked by a trainer and stayed in. … 1B Daniel Vogelbach was hit in the elbow by a pitch and kept playing.
Athletics: OF Nick Martini (sprained knee), who hit well after making his big league debut last season, is on the injured list for at least another week.
Mariners: LHP Yusei Kikuchi makes his major league debut in his home country. The 27-year-old lefty starred for Seibu last season, then joined Seattle with a contract that could be worth $109 million over seven years. Kikuchi mixes a hard fastball with a tough, looping curve.
Athletics: RHP Marco Estrada makes his debut after signing with the A’s. The 35-year-old was 7-14 with a career-worst 5.64 ERA last season for Toronto and was hampered by hip and back problems.