As speculated last year, 45-year-old Ichiro Suzuki will start for the Seattle Mariners when the 2019 MLB season starts Wednesday in Tokyo, Japan.
Mariners manager Scott Servais confirmed the news Monday, telling reporters that the plan is for Ichiro to start both games against the Oakland Athletics on March 20th and the 21st. This is the fifth time Major League Baseball has open its season in Tokyo, and the first time since 2012, when it was also the Mariners and the Athletics taking part in a two-game series.
“Ichiro is going to start for us in the first games against the A’s,” Servais said, per the Japan Times. “He’s playing fine in the outfield. Obviously he showed plenty of arm strength tonight on that one throw to third base. He’ll start the game and we’ll see how it plays out from there.
Ichiro playing in these games gives baseball fans in Japan a potential last-chance to see the ten-time MLB all-star in action. The last time Ichiro played professionally in Japan was during that 2012 Opening Series when he batted .444 with a run batted in across the two games. Ichiro was also traded away from the Mariners to the New York Yankees that year, and he went onto play for the Yankees until 2014. Then, he joined the Miami Marlins for three years before returning to Seattle last season.
His return season in Seattle last year ended abruptly in May when the Mariners announced that he would be moving into a special assistant’s role in the front office for the remainder of the season, essentially temporarily retiring. The decision was mutual between the Mariners and Ichiro, as his on-field performance (.460 OPS and no extra-base hits) wasn’t helping the Mariners be successful.
With the Mariners deciding to shift towards a rebuild this off-season by not re-signing slugger Nelson Cruz and trading away James Paxton, Mike Zunino, Edwin Diaz, Ben Gamel, Jean Segura, Alex Colome, and Robinson Cano, the team is not expected to be very competitive this season, which can bode well for Ichiro’s chances at remaining on the roster longer than these two games this season.
For this special series, both the Mariners and Athletics are allowed to carry 28 players, but will have their rosters revert back to 25 in the United States. That is why Ichiro’s future with the Mariners is uncertain beyond these two games. However, Ichiro has made it clear that he hopes to continue playing well-beyond 2019. When asked if he wants to play until age 50, Ichiro responded by saying “at least.”
“A 45-year-old baseball player really shouldn’t be thinking about the future,” Ichiro also said. “It’s about today. I’m just going to take it day by day and we’ll get to that point where it does come.
So far, Spring training hasn’t been kind to Ichiro, as he has just two hits in 25 at-bats, and didn’t record a hit in six at-bats during exhibition games in Japan. However, Servais doesn’t believe Ichiro is under any pressure to get hits, stating that he believes Ichiro has earned right to partake in these two games.
For his MLB career, Ichiro has a .311/.355/.402 batting line and 117 career home runs in 10,728 plate appearances. His 3,089 career MLB hits rank 23rd all-time, which makes him the active all-time hits leader ahead of Los Angeles Angels first baseman/designated hitter Albert Pujols by seven.
Photo: Mark J. Terrill/The Associated Press