The Oakland A's and the Seattle Mariners kicked off the 2019 MLB season abroad, playing a two-game series in Japan on Thursday and Friday.
There were storylines galore, as the Mariners' Ichiro Suzuki was slated to play in his final two MLB games, finishing his career in his home country, before ultimately hanging it up for good. Aside from Ichiro, former Nippon Professional Baseball star Yusei Kikuchi, who played about an hour from the stadium in which the games were played, was set to take the mound for his MLB debut for the M's in the series' second game.
Yet another layer of interest was the fact that former Giants' and A's reliever Cory Gearrin, as well as the Giants' closer for much of the '18 season, Hunter Strickland, have joined the Seattle Mariner bullpen. Strickland, with his explosive velocity and sharp breaking ball, was installed as the new closer for the Mariners. Those two may not have been the story, heading into the season-opener, but they played an integral role in securing wins for Seattle in Thursday's and Friday's games.
Thursday's opener was a seesaw game which saw the A's take an early 2-0 lead on a Stephen Piscotty solo home run and a Marcus Semien RBI single, before blowing it by surrendering a five-run third inning to the Mariners. Oakland immediately jumped to within one run, as Khris Davis got his '19 season off to a good start with a two-run homer, in the bottom of the frame.
The fourth and fifth saw the Mariners put some distance between themselves and Oakland, with one-run and three-run innings, respectively. The A's bats showed no signs of life until their young power-hitting third baseman, Matt Chapman, blasted a three-run shot over the right field wall, bringing Oakland within a pair of runs – definitely within striking distance of the A's and their myriad offensive weapons.
The momentum, at least to the extent to which the game of baseball allows such a thing, firmly rested in the Oakland dugout. If fans remember anything from the "swingin' A's" of last season, they certainly recall this team's ability to get on an offensive roll and stage comebacks. Add to that the fact that their bullpen was one of the best in the majors in '18, and you have the ingredients necessary for making up any deficit – large or small.
However, this is where Mr. Gearrin and Sir Strickland enter the stage. In fact, in that seventh inning, where Chapman's three-run blast cut the Seattle lead to two, Cory Gearrin was the reliever sent in to stop the bleeding. Indeed, he shut the A's rally down. One middle reliever, Zac Rosscup, bridged the gap between Gearrin and Strickland, finishing the final two-thirds of the scoreless eighth inning. In the ninth, Strickland faced Oakland's 9-1-2 hitters, setting down Josh Phegley and Chapman with strikeouts, bookending a flyout by the A's leadoff hitter Ramon Laureano and subsequently earning the save and preserving the 9-7 win for the Mariners.
The Athletics would go on to lose the following game by a score of 5-4 in extra innings (12). Ichiro took the field for the last time as a major league baseball player, while another budding young Japanese-born star – Yusei Kikuchi – began his big league career. Oakland, to their credit, battled back after being down 3-0 through four innings, eventually tying the score at 4-4 in the bottom of the seventh. From there, the game became a war of attrition between two capable bullpens, each posting and answering one another's zeros. However, the A's offense couldn't take advantage of the opportunities their solid stable of relievers afforded them: Seattle scored a run in the top of the 12th – on an Domingo Santana RBI groundout – and none other than Hunter Strickland held down the A's offense once again in the final frame. With that, the save, the game, and the series went to Strickland and the Mariners.
*The A's are set to take on the Giants, in their annual three-game Bay Area exhibition set, with the first (today, March 24) being played in Oakland and the final two (3/25, 3/26) being held at newly-named Oracle Park in San Francisco.