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Ichiro, and the promise of what could be

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In a 5-4 Mariners win, Ichiro’s retirement was everything that made him special.

Seattle Mariners v Oakland Athletics Photo by Masterpress/Getty Images

The storybook ending was a half-step behind. Perhaps it was greedy to ask for more when we’d already been given so much. A rookie MVP, something out of Star Wars, breaking unbreakable records, August in Kansas City, besting Mo, every All-Star Game speech, and a moment that could’ve easily been the fairy tale finale two years ago, but that was not his way. Instead, over the past two nights we received a gift arguably just as fitting for a 28-year professional career that now counted 14 years in a Mariners uniform. Ichiro gave us something to look forward to, and the chance to see something we’d never seen before.

As they did for the first four innings last night, the entire Tokyo Dome built in anticipation, anxiously awaiting each plate appearance by the 45-year-old. For over a decade, including three of the best teams the Mariners have ever produced, the possibility of Ichiro carried the excitement of the entire game. Even in the darkest years, when offenses impotently flailed and the team put up what could well have been the worst offense in a century, Ichiro was there. Competent, consistent, and unique.

Four times he came up tonight. A pop out. A groundout. A strikeout. And, finally, tantalizingly, heartbreakingly, one last groundout. On the broadcast it looked close.

ESPN

The drama came in part courtesy of Marcus Semien’s double-clutch. If he had a better defensive reputation, you could’ve almost believed Semien was breathing life into the moment intentionally, but as he’d prove later in the game, it was likely just another defensive hitch. It couldn’t have been closer.

Seattle Mariners v Oakland Athletics Photo by Masterpress/Getty Images

There is another photo here, taken a frame or two later, where the ball hits the back of Matt Olson’s glove as Ichiro’s foot hovers mere inches shy of the bag. I do not want to include it. The entire sequence is an absolute triumph of photography, tracking the truth of a moment in inarguable detail. A third follows it, as first-base umpire Lance Barksdale correctly, heart-wrenchingly pumps his fist to pass judgment on Ichiro’s final appearance. Ichiro’s shoulders are slumped, his head hangs low in disappointment, and it is more tragic than anything Aeschylus ever penned.

But it did not last. Even hitless through two games, reaching base once on a hard-fought walk, the moment was not too great. Ichiro helped make three years of Mariners baseball electric, then made another decade watchable in the face of every obstacle imaginable. As he jogged in from right field for the final time, it was overwhelming to confront, even as it had been run through my mind repeatedly for weeks, fully prepared. First Dee Gordon began to cry, then he was joined by several of his Mariners teammates, as Ichiro made his way through the swarm. On April 1st Félix Hernández will take the mound at T-Mobile Park debuting his 15th season in Seattle. Tonight, however, clad in a blue hoodie, he held close the only man present to wear a Mariners uniform as long as him. Waiting in the dugout with the smile and the swing that saved baseball for Seattle, Ichiro’s idol and friend Ken Griffey Jr. waited with a grin once more. In his penultimate hug before leaving the field at last, today’s starting pitcher Yusei Kikuchi greeted him, bleary-eyed and thankful.

It would be a lie to name the day as much Kikuchi’s as it was Ichiro’s, but it was the first page of a new chapter in a remarkable journey for Seattle’s only remaining active Japanese player. He would no doubt be disappointed to not make it through five innings, as his adrenaline-fueled command was not always pinpoint, but through 4.2 IP Kikuchi showed what Mariners fans have to look forward to and then some.

In the first plate appearance of the game Kikuchi caught Marcus Semien off-balance and made an athletic play on a grounder to field the ball himself and sprint to first to record his first out. Heart pumping, he climbed the hill again and recorded his first MLB strikeout. The victim was Matt Chapman, a sight for sore eyes for all Mariners fans who’ve developed a healthy fear of the A’s 3B (and an involuntary gagging response to his facial hair). The slider, friends, it looks good.

Kikuchi breezed through the first four innings unscathed, recording a pair of extra strikeouts while offering just one free pass (to Khris Davis, which, fair) and a bloop single to Ramon Laureano. The 5th inning saw the wheels come off a bit, as Kikuchi’s command began to slip. Two hard hit singles began the inning, but Kikuchi almost escaped unscathed. Battling back for two outs, a rapped RBI grounder up the middle ended his debut Roenis Elías entered and induced a weak chopper from Matt Chapman, but after fielding it cleanly and firing a perfect throw to first, Jay Bruce flat-out dropped the ball, allowing another run to score. Still, an encouraging start, and through five innings the Mariners led 3-2.

They earned that lead the same way they had the night before: power. Ryon Healy is nothing if not a taters enthusiast, and he indulged eagerly tonight. With the hot-starting Tim Beckham on first on a single, Ryon relocated a terrible Marco Estrada breaking ball into the left field seats.

I wondered in the Game Thread if Marco Estrada would be mixing up his repertoire more this season after being predominantly a fastball/changeup pitcher for many years. If that’s the wrinkle he has to offer, M’s fans shouldn’t be too worried. After missing out on the party last night, Mitch Haniger arrived on time and brought snacks tonight. He was stranded after a one-out double in the first but took the liberty of cashing himself in in the third.

The M’s would add to their lead in the top of the 7th with a Jay Bruce sac fly to score Ryon, but two were given back in the bottom of the frame. Roenis Elías bore the brunt of it, but he could’ve easily been out of the inning, or at least been less damaged by the results. A two-out single and a walk got Roenis pulled in favor of Dan Altavilla, who promptly walked Stephen Piscotty to load the bases. Khris Davis drove a grounder up the middle to tie the game 4-4, and there the score would remain through regulation.

Following Ichiro’s departure, Braden Bishop entered the game for his MLB debut. He joined Kikuchi and Brandon Brennan in making their first appearances of the season, though he’d strike out in his lone PA. Brennan worked a scoreless 8th inning, and Matt Festa would follow with two stellar innings of work to get the M’s to the 11th. After Zac Rosscup impressively tightroped through the heart of Oakland’s order, Dee Gordon laced a liner into center and set up camp in Ryan Buchter’s head. From there he watched as Buchter walked Mitch Haniger and got Jay Bruce to fly out. Fernando Rodney entered and put Edwin Encarnacíon on, setting the stage for a redux of last night’s spicy salami from Domingo Santana.

Instead, a surefire double-play ball was what we got, yet a soaring flip from Marcus Semien threw off Jurickson Profar enough to make his relay to first soar a bit high, and a hustling Santana beat the waving tag attempt to score Gordon. Hunter Strickland slammed the door for the second night in a row, and a 5-4 victory means a series sweep in the Japan Series.

It was an ending for one of the greatest stories the game of baseball has ever known, and even still it was a joy, a celebration, and, hopefully for Ichiro, it felt right.

Seattle Mariners v Oakland Athletics Photo by Masterpress/Getty Images