It would have been a mega-event in Japan, a clash between two of the biggest baseball stars the country has produced. The news that the Angels were targeting Shohei Ohtani's next start to come against the Mariners in Seattle this weekend prompted many to fantasize about a potential matchup between the two-way phenom and his renowned countryman, Ichiro Suzuki.
But now, that hope won't be realized.
The Mariners announced Thursday that Ichiro will be transitioning to a front-office role, effective immediately, and he will not return to the active roster in 2018. Ichiro clarified that he is not retiring, and he didn't rule out a potential return next year, but the development erased the possibility of an imminent encounter with Ohtani.
"I have nothing but the utmost respect for him," Ohtani said in a statement released by the Angels. "What he has done for this game, our country and the fans. I wish we could have played against him, but it wasn't meant to be. Wish nothing but the best for him moving forward."
Angels first baseman Albert Pujols shares a unique bond with Ichiro, as they both debuted on April 2, 2001, and went on to capture the Rookie of the Year Awards in their respective leagues, marking the beginning of their Hall of Fame careers. The two didn't cross paths often -- Pujols spent much of his career starring for the Cardinals in the National League, while Ichiro electrified with the Mariners in the American League -- but Pujols often admired the Japanese icon from afar.
"Pretty special player to be able to do what he did in the States," said Pujols, who heads to Seattle one hit shy of 3,000 after getting No. 2,999 on Thursday. "Don't forget about what he did in Japan, those years that he played there. Pretty unbelievable. A better person than a player. Great human being. Let's see what he's going to do next. I don't think he's done yet. He might be done for this year, but I think he might have a second shot coming up next year."
Asked if he had a favorite memory of Ichiro, Pujols cited a moment they shared at the 2003 All-Star Game on the South Side of Chicago. Pujols lined a pitch from Jamie Moyer to right field, but Ichiro ran into the gap and made a leaping grab to deny him a hit.
"I could have easily had a chance to win that MVP in '03, and he made a great play," Pujols said. "Then, he got on later on first base, and I told him, 'Hey, man, why do you have to do it like that? It's the All-Star Game.' And he said, 'Hey man, I just play hard.' He was just a fun guy to play against."
Ohtani, who missed his scheduled start against the Orioles on Tuesday because of a left ankle sprain, is scheduled to throw a bullpen session Friday, which could set him up to pitch Sunday's finale at Safeco Field, though the Angels have not yet made an official announcement. Garrett Richards and Tyler Skaggswill pitch the first two games of the series.
The ankle sprain is no longer an issue for Ohtani at the plate. He started at designated hitter and batted fifth on Thursday for the third consecutive game against the Orioles, collecting two hits in three at-bats with a walk, scoring twice and driving in a run.