Aoki gets front-row seat for Iwakuma-Tanaka tilt

Mariners outfielder hopes game provides lift in Japan following earthquake

Aoki gets front-row seat for Iwakuma-Tanaka tilt

NEW YORK -- While the eyes of Japan were on the pitching matchup between standout starters and former teammates Hisashi Iwakuma and Masahiro Tanaka on Sunday, countryman Norichika Aoki enjoyed playing a part in that duel despite his Mariners coming up on the short end of a 4-3 game at Yankee Stadium.

"It's always exciting to be part of a game like this where ex-teammates face each other here in America on the big stage," said Aoki, who went 1-for-4 with a triple and scored one of Seattle's runs. "That's always fun. I'm sure all the fans in Japan, in our country, are very excited."

Aoki, in his first year as Seattle's starting left fielder, said the game had extra meaning for more than just the baseball ramifications.

Tanaka faces his old teammate

"There was another big earthquake that just happened in Japan and I'm sure a lot of people there are very down and emotional," Aoki said. "So I'm just hoping something like this will give back and give them spirit and keep their hopes high."

The game was televised live in Japan despite starting at 2 a.m. in Tokyo. Aoki said he has relatives near where the quake centered. And while everyone he knows is safe so far, they're still dealing with aftershocks.

Aoki, in his fifth year in the Majors, was facing Tanaka for the first time since his own days in Japan. But he said the 27-year-old still throws similarly to his days in the Pacific League.

"The image is pretty much the same," said Aoki. "He attacks hitters and he always had great stuff back in Japan. I still see the same stuff."

Aoki nearly had a shot at an inside-the-park home run against Tanaka when his low line drive skipped past diving center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury in the fifth and rolled to the wall. Third-base coach Manny Acta was waving Aoki on as he headed toward third, but threw up a late stop sign when the Yankees got the relay lined up as the 34-year-old seemed to be losing steam.

"Yes, I was thinking that when I came around first base," Aoki said with a smile, "all the way to third."

He scored the tying run when Seth Smith followed with a single up the middle, but the Yankees answered with their own run in the bottom of the fifth and held on for the win.

Smith's RBI single

Greg Johns is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.