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Is Ichiro’s Belated Homecoming a Sign of the Season to Come?

When you think about it, it’s ridiculous that this is the first time Ichiro and the Mariners have opened the season in Japan.

From the time the Japanese superstar signed with Seattle in 2001 and turned into an American sensation, the Mariners should have been locked into a trip to Tokyo every two or three years — not necessarily to open the season, but at least to play some exhibition games. The fact that Bud Selig waited until Ichiro had been in the majors for 11 years and was in his twilight proves once again how shortsighted Major League Baseball is.

That said, it’s certainly great for Ichiro, 38, to be able to take a career curtain call in his homeland. It was awesome that he had four hits in the opener. And better yet that the Mariners — Japan’s unofficial national major-league team — won.
The 3-1 win in 11 innings over Oakland looks like it will be the way the Mariners win, when they win, this season. They’re probably looking at 90 losses again, but at least they look like they could have some future hitters.

Dustin Ackley is the star of those, as he showed in the opener, with a home run and RBI single. The entire point of this season is for Ackley, Justin Smoak, Jesus Montero, Michael Saunders, Mike Carp, Casper Wells, et al., to become big-league hitters.

Ichiro’s move to No. 3 in the lineup seems overdue.  He has been the best hitter on the team forever, and he probably should have been hitting at least second for a while now, so the Mariners could leverage him to help the rest of the lineup. They are finally doing that, and they have to hope last year was an aberration for Ichiro and that the opener of this season is a harbinger that he will once again be a hitting machine in 2012.

“We’re trying to stretch out the lineup and have the guys feed off each other,” manager Eric Wedge told reporters after the win over Oakland. “I think Ichiro hitting in the third spot is the right place. We’re going to be a very offensive ballclub this year.”
Ackley and Ichiro will be anyway. The rest is wishful thinking.

They need Saunders to carry his hot spring into the season and finally prove he is a major-league player. They need Smoak to rebound from his nightmare 2011. They need Chone Figgins to resurrect his seemingly dead career. And they need Montero to be Jesus and the rest of the youngsters to make progress.

If some of that happens, the Mariners could be a .500 club. If all of it happens, they could be surprise playoff contenders.

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