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Table Setter: What we learned from the Mariners’ sweep of A’s in Japan

Mariners outfielder Mitch Haniger connected on his first home run of 2019 on Thursday. (Getty)

The weirdest start ever to a Mariners season (this has to be the first time the MLB regular season began before the NCAA Tournament, right?) is in the rear-view mirror, and it’s not one we’ll soon forget.

Drayer: Barrier-breaking Ichiro puts the bat down for good

A two-game sweep, in Japan, featuring an emotional sendoff for future first-ballot Hall of Famer Ichiro? Yeah, that’s an opening series going down in the ‘Memorable’ category of Mariners history.

While the news of Ichiro’s retirement and the incredible reception he received from the fans in the Tokyo Dome grabbed most of the attention – and rightly so – the season moves on for the M’s without the 45-year-old legend. Not only that, but they return to the States with a 2-0 head start on the rest of the American League West. Not a bad spot to be in at all.

Here are a few things that stand out after Seattle’s trip to Japan.

Mitch Haniger looks ready for a monster year.

Boy are the Mariners lucky to have this guy.

In a season where so much is new, whether it’s the team’s lineup or list of top prospects or how much certain areas of its home stadium looks like it’s been coated in Pepto-Bismol, it’s re-assuring to have an All-Star outfielder around to stabilize the batting order.

Especially when he’s doing things like this.

Haniger didn’t exactly have a great time in Arizona – .185 average – but when he’s hit the ball this spring, it’s gone places. He homered in his first plate appearance of Cactus League play. He absolutely crushed a ball in an exhibition against the Yomiuri Giants in the Tokyo Dome earlier this week. And when he’s connected, there’s been no doubt.

Haniger set a high bar for himself last year, hitting .285 with 26 home runs, 93 RBIs and an .859 OPS, yet he seems determined to prove his ceiling goes even higher. And while Seattle did a fine impression of the mid-90s Mariners (playing long ball in a dome) by cranking four homers in the two games against the A’s, I wouldn’t be so sure that will continue at T-Mobile Park.

Haniger, though? He’s proven to be so consistent and still on an upward trajectory that it’s not a stretch to imagine him keeping the Mariners in games they otherwise wouldn’t be competitive in throughout the 2019 season.

The results of Hunter Strickland’s early outings are interesting.

The Mariners got pretty used to open-and-shut cases in save situations last season, so it was sure nice of new closer Hunter Strickland to pick up where Edwin Díaz left off to notch the first two saves of the year in Japan.

Hunter Strickland goes 1-2-3 in the ninth for the save.

On the Hunt. #TrueToTheBlue x Hunter Strickland

Posted by Seattle Mariners on Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Strickland looked pretty filthy on Wednesday, going to his slider with two strikes to punch out a pair in a perfect ninth inning. And on Thursday, the Mariners turned to the hard-throwing right-hander again after taking the lead in the 12th, where he registered one more strikeout in another clean inning to lock up a Seattle win.

The 30-year-old Strickland came to the Mariners as a free agent after the San Francisco Giants decided to let him hit the open market rather than tender him a contract for 2019. And while Strickland had a rough end to his five seasons with San Francisco, losing his closer job and finishing last season with a career-worst 3.97 ERA following an unfortunate (and self-inflicted) hand injury, he’s not far removed from some eye-popping numbers for a reliever. Strickland opened 2018 with 13 saves in 15 chances, and his ERA was all the way down to 2.01 in mid-June after 33 appearances and 31 1/3 innings pitched.

If the Mariners get a version of Strickland this year that is close to the one that pitched for the Giants in the early portion of last year, they’ll be in good shape at the back end of their bullpen.

The rest of the bullpen is a different kind of interesting.

Nobody is expecting relief pitching to be a strength of the Mariners this year, and that point was hammered home in Tokyo – even with Strickland’s strong M’s debut.

A pair of Mariners relievers had shaky outings, one in each game against the Athletics.

In Wednesday’s opener it was Nick Rumbelow, who was the first man out of the bullpen for manager Scott Servais after Marco Gonzales went six innings in his first Opening Day start. The A’s apparently welcomed the switch from the left-handed Gonzales to the right-handed Rumbelow, because they pounced. Rumbelow recorded just one out, giving up three runs on a walk and two hits (including a Matt Chapman home run) before Seattle turned to veteran Cory Gearrin to put out the fire.

On Thursday it was Dan Altavilla who ran into some trouble. Taking over in the seventh inning with two on and two out, he walked the first batter he faced, then gave up a two-run single to Khris Davis that tied the game.

Rumbelow and Altavilla will probably have more moments like that this season, and they will assuredly have better ones as well, but their performances in Japan are indicative of the kind of bullpen the Mariners have. There are several low-cost veterans they’re hoping will work out and a number of younger relievers who still have learning on the job to do. Bullpens are hard to predict and sometimes the patchwork model turns out better than expected. But for now, there’s no reason to believe it will be anything other than a big old question mark.

Drayer: Braden Bishop making himself into more than a fourth outfielder