Single-minded

Ichiro Suzuki's average fell 63 points, but he remained confident and is beginning to show signs of his old self
June 26, 2005

During one of his rare slumps while playing in Japan several years ago, Ichiro Suzuki made an out and threw his bat in anger on the way back to the dugout, an act he so regretted--he normally treats his equipment as gently as a newborn--that he took the lumber to his hotel room that night and slept with it. Ichiro vowed that he would never again let a slump drive him to such a fit of pique.

So it is not surprising that Ichiro, now the Mariners' rightfielder and a two-time American League batting champion, has handled his recent struggles at the plate with unwavering calm. Although he lost 63 points on his batting average over a six-week period, Ichiro lost none of the cool or confidence that helped him set the major league record for hits in a season last year with 262. This is, after all, the player who once said, "If I'm in a slump, I ask myself for advice."

He's needed it lately. After hitting .356 in April, Ichiro saw his average nosedive to .293 by June 15. He showed signs of returning to form in two of his team's three wins over the Mets last weekend, going 3 for 4 with a three-run homer on Friday and 3 for 5 on Sunday to raise his average to .302. Seattle manager Mike Hargrove isn't concerned. "It's not like he's swinging and missing a lot," Hargrove says. "He's still making contact, sometimes with pitches you can't believe he can hit. He'll be fine."

Hitting coach Don Baylor pointed out that even in the lowest depths of his slump, Ichiro wasn't exactly flirting with the dreaded Mendoza line of .200. "His Mendoza line," Baylor says, "is about .315." Also, Baylor sees no mechanical causes for Ichiro's decline. But there's been one obvious symptom of his recent struggles: Ichiro hasn't shown his normally remarkable bat control. Instead of flicking line drives to all fields and slapping hard grounders between infielders, he's been lifting more pop-ups and lazy fly balls than usual. Though he's deceptively powerful at 5' 9" and 172 pounds, Ichiro didn't become arguably the game's best pure hitter by hitting the ball in the air so often.

Ichiro had started all 67 of Seattle's games through Sunday, but he shakes his head vigorously when asked, through an interpreter, if fatigue could have contributed to his slump. He's less emphatic, however, about the speculation that he began to press recently as he approached his 1,000th major league hit. He reached the milestone on June 15, in his 696th game, making him the first player since the Phillies' Chuck Klein in 1933 to accomplish the feat in fewer than 700 games. "I can't say that I feel the pressure," he said, a few days before he reached 1,000. "But maybe I do, I don't know."

That's about as much self-analysis as Ichiro will offer. At times he refuses to acknowledge he's even in a slump--"I personally would not use that word," he said last week--and during others he deflects questions about it with humor. "Maybe it's because I ate too much Jell-O or put too much wasabi on the food that I eat," he says. "You never know."

In his native Japan, Ichiro's fans aren't quite as casual about his drop-off at the plate. "People are not used to seeing him have problems like this," says Keizo Konishi, a Seattle-based journalist who covers Ichiro for the Kyodo News. "Many of them are asking, 'What is wrong with Ichiro?'"

It's doubtful that Ichiro, 31, who won seven straight batting titles with the Orix Blue Wave before signing with the Mariners, is asking himself the same question. He seems to regard his subpar six weeks mostly as a statistical anomaly that will correct itself in due time. "I have confidence in my game," he says. With Ichiro's track record it's hard to blame him.

Three Up

Gary Sizemore, CF, Indians

Cleveland had won nine straight games through Sunday thanks in part to this 22-year-old lefty, who was batting .326 in the leadoff spot.

Mark Teixeira, 1B, Rangers

The 25-year-old switch-hitter (20 homers, 56 RBIs) has established himself as the AL's top first baseman.

Morgan Ensberg, 3B, Astros

After a disappointing '04 he was carrying a woeful offense with six homers in June (16 overall).

Three Down

Dodgers L.A. had lost seven of its last eight through Sunday, and last week it learned closer Eric Gagne (right elbow) may be out for the year.

Mike Sweeney, 1B, Royals

The four-time All-Star's trade value was dropping as fast as his stats: .250 average in June and no homers since May 10.

Bret Boone, 2B, Mariners

In a seasonlong slump (.227) the three-time All-Star was benched last week in favor of Triple A call-up Jose Lopez.

COLOR PHOTOLUCY NICHOLSON/REUTERS STILL SWINGING Only Ichiro could hit .293 and have people talking about a slump. He was back over .300 at week's end.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)