WASHINGTON – For most of the year Ichiro Suzuki(notes) has been in a slump. This, in itself, is not unique; Ichiro has been in slumps before. He is no more immune from imperfection than anyone else. But in the past Ichiro's slides were brief and usually followed by such a ferocious cluster of line-drive singles that everyone forgot the slump ever happened.
But this season the slump has been prolonged, lasting well into June, with only a splurge of base hits coming the last few days. From May 19 to June 9 he hit .149, which is not like Ichiro. So much of his game is built on slapping singles to left field and beating out ground balls to shortstop, but he's 37 now and doesn't seem as fast as he once was. On Tuesday night in a game against the Washington Nationals, he grounded into a double play. It was his fourth double play this year. Once second basemen rushed throws to first on routine grounders, afraid they would be too late to catch him. Now infielders are turning double plays on him at a greater rate than ever in his career.
He has always appeared ageless with his lithe frame stretched to perfection, a rubber band that would never break. Many are beginning to wonder if his speed is finally leaving him.
And if it has, why doesn't he use the one weapon he has consistently refused to employ? His power.
Anyone who arrives at the ballpark early is dazzled by the amazing sight of the tiny, slender Japanese left-handed hitter in the batting cage, swirling with that awkward but beautiful swing and smashing baseballs deep into the right-field bleachers. It's a display as awesome as any of the great sluggers who made batting practice a show, like Mark McGwire, Darryl Strawberry and Albert Pujols(notes). But these are giants, men whose arms ripple with muscle. Their games were built around home runs.
As soon as batting practice is over, Ichiro returns to trying to outrace the throw from shortstop.
"I just saw him hit seven straight balls in the upper deck!" gushed an American League scout Tuesday after watching the Mariners batting practice at Nationals Park. It was something the man had seen before yet was astonished nonetheless.
[AccuScore: Mariners have hope]
Ichiro's power is not a secret. He hit more than 12 home runs in each of his seven full seasons in Japan before coming to the United States in 2001. Once he hit 25. And Japan's seasons are some 30 games shorter than those here. Several times baseball people have pushed him to join the home run contest at the All-Star game, certain he would win. But he refuses. His great power remains a batting practice sensation.
Those who have coached or managed him are certain he is capable of hitting 30 home runs in a season. John McLaren, a coach and later a manager with the Mariners for large parts of Ichiro's career in Seattle remembers how he looked overmatched when he first came to the team, lining foul balls over the third base dugout. One day Mariners manager Lou Piniella came up to Ichiro as they were walking onto the field.
"Do you ever try to turn on the ball [and pull it]?" Piniella asked.
In the first inning of that day's spring training game, Ichrio did indeed turn, crushing a long home run to right field that could best be described as jaw-dropping. When Ichrio returned to the dugout, he looked at Pinella and said in his then-awkward English: "Is that turn enough, Lou?"
Why Ichiro doesn't try to hit home runs is something of a mystery. But then Ichiro has always been a bit of a mystery himself. He is a man of habits, particular about everything, spending his time before games in an array of rituals as fastidious as wiping clean the team-issued vinyl bags for storing wallets and valuables to nearly impossible stretching exercises in the batting cage. He does not discuss his power much and has granted few interviews this season, even to the large contingent of Japanese media who cover every Mariners game. His most famous answer about the subject came in the news conference after he was named MVP of the 2007 All-Star game when he said: "If I'm allowed to hit .220 I could probably hit 40, but nobody wants that."
"When he says that he's not lying," said Mariners hitting coach Chris Chambliss, who is in his first year with the team. "Guys like Ichiro can do anything with the bat. There is a way he can hit for more power but his focus is on being consistent, too."
Through 72 games in 2011 Ichiro is batting .279. He's a career .329 hitter and has never hit below .303 in any of his 10 full major league seasons.
Those who know him say Ichiro will never change his approach, that he was taught years ago to keep hitting singles, to get his 200 hits a year and steal bases. It is an older style of game. One from a long-ago era, revived at times in the 1960s and 1980s, in which hitters were valued for getting lots of base hits and trying to disrupt pitchers by threatening to steal. In the modern era, where statistical analysis has replaced gut instinct, a bigger value is placed on doubles and home runs. Things like 200 hits and a .320 batting average aren't perceived as helpful if the hits are only singles.
As time has gone on, Ichiro has been called selfish for his approach. And now that he doesn't beat out as many ground balls or hit as many line drives into left field – the last week aside – those criticisms have grown louder. Isn't it time for him to adapt?
Ichiro says nothing. But there is little chance he changes.
"He's like Wade Boggs, he does what he does best, he's superstitious," McLaren said. He did not say this as a criticism, but rather as the frank assessment of a baseball man who has been around Ichiro as much as anybody in the major leagues. Ichiro is Ichiro.
And even if he is in a slump he will not change.
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