At 8 PM PT tonight, the Mariners will take the field to reawaken a rivalry as old as time, give or take seven years. Before they begin the season against the Oakland Athletics on March 20th, they’ll play the Yomiuri Giants for two exhibition games. Although the Giants have played several times against an MLB All-Star team during the Japan All-Star Series over the past decade, the last time the storied franchise faced off against the Mariners was Seattle’s previous trip to Japan in 2012. Yomiuri took that game 9-3 after pummeling newly-signed RHP Hisashi Iwakuma for six runs in four innings. Dustin Ackley homered and tripled, but it wasn’t enough. This time, Seattle will hope things go differently.
They’ll be facing the oldest (concurrent) professional baseball team in Japan, as the Giants have played consecutively for 85 years, founded back in 1934. That places them squarely between the AL/NL establishment of 1901 and the 1961 era, meaning their history stretches well beyond 14 current MLB teams, and is more than double the length of the Mariners’. Their founding, in fact, was done to offer a challenger to a U.S. All-Star team including Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx, and Lou Gehrig.
The Giants’ legacy of success is immense as well. While their logo and jersey design is based on the New York Giants, they have often been referred to as the Yankees of Nippon Professional Baseball. While the team’s 36 Central League pennants and 22 Japan Series championships (both the most of any team by far) draw an easy comparison to the Bronx Bombers, their efforts to establish themselves as ubiquitous with the sport itself in their country have drawn comparisons as well. The team, owned by the media conglomerate known as the Yomiuri Group, has attempted to brand itself as “Japan’s Team” at times, and has a strong reputation for bandwagon fandom, as successful teams are wont to do.
Despite a legacy of famous players like Sadaharu Oh, Hideki Matsui, Koji Uehara, and a late-career Masaichi Kaneda, the Giants have slipped from dominance in the past several years. Since their last championship in 2012 (not a huge drought, no), the Giants have managed just one Central League title (in 2014) and have hovered around .500 for the past five years. Still, we may have the chance to see a few exciting and/or familiar faces tonight and tomorrow/Monday morning.
28-year-old RHP Tomoyuki Sugano has been a star for the Giants since he joined the team (a year later than usual) age-22, and would easily draw significant MLB interest were the Giants to post him. However, Yomiuri is one of a few NPB teams that has a policy of refusing to post players until they complete their nine years of professional time and can elect free agency. Sugano has shown mid-to-upper 90s velocity at some points in his career, but now more frequently works 90-93 with movement and command, as well as a slider, curve, and forkball.
We’ll almost assuredly see 30-year-old SS Hayato Sakamoto, who has brought plus power, excellent defense, and decent speed for 12 years to the Giants’ lineup. According to Sung Min Kim of FanGraphs, Sakamoto has not expressed much interest in leaving the Giants, so this will be one of the few opportunities for U.S. fans to see one of the NPB’s best middle infielders who delivered a team-leading 154 wRC+ last year. Sharing the infield will be 22-year-old 3B/1B Kazuma Okamoto, who broke onto the scene in 2018 with a booming 33 HR season and an 11.7% BB% in 616 PAs, helping him to a 152 wRC+ himself. While a player in decline, 39-year-old C Shinnosuke Abe deserves mention as well, as the 18-year veteran (all with the Giants) still managed to post decent offensive numbers in the twilight of his career.
Other recognizable faces may stand out. Former Dodgers top prospect and Miguel Olivo jaws victim Alex Guerrero has performed capably for Yomiuri over the past couple seasons. Former M’s reliever Ryan Cook joined the team this offseason, as did beloved former M’s starter Hisashi Iwakuma. Oft-traded 3B Christian Villanueva also joined the roster this winter. Ageless wonder Koji Uehara returned to his original team last season, seemingly intent on returning for 2019 as well at 43.
These games will (we think) be televised on MLB TV, Inexplicably, neither exhibition game will be televised or have radio coverage, so if there is any coverage it will likely be limited to the MLB.com gameday function. Fortunately, we will have a staff member (Connor Donovan) at the second game, so we’ll have a more detailed recap for Félix Hernández’s start, and we will of course have a thread and recap for both. It’s time for the M’s to take the series lead, and it starts tonight.