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UP CLOSE, MARINERS SKIPPER Lou Piniella looks as intimidating as a bartender in the scariest dive in town. On the field a few hours before Opening Day, surrounded by a gaggle of scribbling reporters, Piniella issued his usual stream of terse replies and stern glares. "Ready to go." "Opening Day is Opening Day." Then, as the questions subsided, he tugged on his cap, said, "All right," and disappeared into the clubhouse.

It was an odd exit line, considering the uneasy feelings circulating around Safeco Field at the beginning of the 2001 season. With the departure of A-Rod, the last of the M's Golden Trio, the Mariners are either unable to pull off a trade for a replacement superstar, or they're depending on a bizarre and revolutionary strategy that involves imported Japanese icons and blind faith in pitching, fielding, and "small ball"—that is, hits, bunting, stolen bases, etc.

Right fielder Ichiro Suzuki, who joins last year's Rookie of the Year, reliever Kazuhiro Sasaki, is a hero in Japan, as the legion of starry-eyed Japanese fans, reporters, and photographers at Safeco confirms. In his first three at-bats against Oakland A's ace Tim Hudson, however, the Japanese batting champion flailed at pitches like a minor-leaguer. Leading off the seventh inning against relief pitcher T.J. Matthews, Ichiro singled, starting a rally that'd help the Mariners come back from a 4-0 deficit. An inning later, his bunt along the first base line sparked another rally, giving the M's a 5-4 lead going into the ninth. In from the bullpen trotted Kaz Sasaki, who yielded a single, but then got A's star Jason Giambi to line out before coercing a game-ending double play.

It was only the first game of a 162-game season, of course, but it had a plot strikingly similar to the one that Piniella, General Manager Pat Gillick, and CEO Howard Lincoln have suggested is their grand plan. It's a plan that hasn't gotten much support from reporters, who suggest that the M's are a couple of power hitters short, but one that Lincoln, in a pregame interview, said he'll stick to. "We're not going to sacrifice pitching and fielding to please the media," he said.

RICHARD A. MARTIN rmartin@seattleweekly.com

 
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