Today was supposed to be the third day of the Major League Baseball season, but of course there are no games today or in the immediate future. That doesn’t mean we can’t do a bit of box-score peeping and reminisce.
Eight years ago today, there was baseball, and it was being played in the Land of the Rising Sun. MLB staged its fourth season-opening series under the Tokyo Dome lights in Japan, and the country’s favorite baseball son, Mariners star Ichiro Suzuki, returned for his first game on Japanese soil since he left the Orix Blue Wave to sign with Seattle before the 2001 season. Ichiro delighted the fans in attendance, collecting four hits and driving in the Mariners’ last run in Seattle’s 3-1, 11-inning win.
"I've never been that nervous before," Ichiro said postgame. "The warmth of the fans almost made me want to cry … I felt the significance of the occasion. I knew it would only happen once in my life. I wanted to share a special moment and give something back to them."
The 2012 season would be Ichiro’s final one in a Mariners uniform — at least for the time being. Seattle traded him to the Yankees prior to the July Trade Deadline, and he would play five more seasons in New York and Miami before returning to the Mariners in '18 and retiring in an emotional two-game farewell back on Japanese soil last spring.
To fill the void of real baseball right now, let’s turn back the clock and take a look at our box score of the day — from a game that many American fans might have missed in the wee hours of the night.
Player of the Game: Félix Hernández, SP, Mariners
Ok, this might have actually been Ichiro, but this is an excuse to give King Félix some love. Making his fourth of what would be 10 consecutive Opening Day starts, Seattle’s franchise ace was about two weeks shy of his 26th birthday and in the prime of his career, two years removed from his lone American League Cy Young Award. Eleven months later, he would sign a five-year, $135.5 million contract extension that kept him in the Pacific Northwest for the rest of the decade.
Hernández excelled in this game, as he did through much of his Mariners tenure, without much run support. The righty allowed a single run on five hits across eight strong innings, striking out six A’s without a walk before he was relieved by Tom Wilhelmsen with the game still tied at one. His perfect game against the Rays — still the most recent perfecto in the Major Leagues — would come five months later in Seattle.
Remember him? Jesús Montero, DH, Mariners
If you’re a prospect junkie, you almost definitely remember Montero, the Yankees’ $1.6 million international signing and the uber-hyped gem of New York’s farm system. The Bronx Bombers envisioned Montero developing into the next great Yankees catcher in the lineage of Bill Dickey, Yogi Berra, Elston Howard, Thurman Munson and Jorge Posada.
Of course, as we know now, that was not the case. Montero had a good cup of coffee with the 2011 Yankees (slashing .328/.406/.590 with four home runs across 18 games) and made the club’s postseason roster that year, but New York traded him to the Mariners that winter in a mini-blockbuster that sent All-Star righty Michael Pineda to the Bronx. Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said that Montero “may well be the best player I’ve ever traded.”
Thus, this game in Tokyo was Montero’s Mariners debut. He went 0-for-4 and went on to finish 2012 with a below-expectations .685 OPS, but the fact that Montero started at designated hitter hinted at the bigger trouble — he didn’t cut it defensively behind the plate. By May '13, Montero was hitting .208 and the Mariners demoted him to Triple-A, where he didn’t hit much better. Then came a season-ending torn meniscus in his left knee, followed by a 50-game suspension for his involvement in the Biogenesis performance-enhancing drug scandal and a right hand injury suffered in a car accident in Venezuela.
Montero reported to Mariners camp 40 pounds overweight the next spring, and by then the ship had pretty much sailed.
He wore THAT uniform? Brian Fuentes, RP, Athletics
Fuentes is still one of the few Rockies relievers who ever made it work in Denver’s thin mountain air. The southpaw recorded four consecutive 20-plus save seasons from 2005-08, compiling a more-than-respectable 3.04 ERA in that span and earning three All-Star Game selections. You may also remember him leading the Majors with 48 saves for the '09 Angels.
But Brian Fuentes of the Oakland Athletics_?_ Yep, that happened too. The A’s signed Fuentes to a free-agent deal in January 2011, but manager Bob Geren took him out of the closer’s role by late May after some early struggles. Fuentes publicly criticized Geren for the move, and by this game, Grant Balfour was the A’s primary closer. Fuentes pitched a clean 10th inning in this game, but the ‘12 season would be his last as a big leaguer.
Before he was big: Yoenis Céspedes, OF, Athletics
Thanks to Ichiro’s return to Japan, Céspedes’ Major League debut somehow wasn’t the biggest story of the night. Céspedes had made a splash the previous fall when he defected from Cuba and garnered the attention of big league teams who had had him on their radars for years. The A’s won the bidding war and signed Céspedes to a four-year, $36 million contract, the largest contract to that point for a Cuban defector that made Céspedes the highest-paid player on Oakland’s 2012 roster.
Céspedes had a quiet spring, but he showed his promise right away in Tokyo, doubling off Hernández in this game and then knocking his first big league homer the next night. He would go on to lead the AL West champion A’s with a .292 average, place 10th in AL MVP Award voting and finish runner-up to Mike Trout in the AL Rookie of the Year Award vote.
Last call: Chone Figgins, 3B, Mariners
Figgins was the do-everything catalyst for the powerhouse 2000s Angels clubs, manning every position except pitcher, catcher and first base and running amok in manager Mike Scioscia’s take-the-extra-base attack. Figgins stole a Major League-most 62 bases in '05 and averaged 44 steals per season with the Halos from '04-'09, and he also drew a league-high 101 walks in ‘09 — his lone All-Star campaign and the year of his highest finish (10th) in AL MVP Award voting.
Figgins signed with the division-rival Mariners as a free agent following that 2009 season, and by this game he was looking to rebound from a dreadful ‘11 campaign that saw him hit .188 and get replaced by Adam Kennedy at third base. When Kennedy signed with the Dodgers, the Mariners put Figgins back atop the lineup, starting with this game in Tokyo, hoping he could rediscover his form as a dynamic leadoff man. But Figgins went 1-for-4 in this game, and by early May, that experiment was over. He was taken out of Seattle’s everyday lineup, designated for assignment that fall and, after a brief stint with the Dodgers, out of baseball by the close of ‘14.