I sat down to watch this Memorial Day game between the Mariners and the Baltimore Orioles expecting the bizarro Ichiro that has played in place of the eponymous protagonist of this series for the last few weeks; a shadow player unable to scratch out hits and stumbling to a .163 batting average in the last 14 days. Ichiro, mired in a slump that even his singles-oriented style hasn’t busted yet, has had the worst month of his career. Geoff Baker at the Seattle Times suggested a one-game sit for Ichiro to shake him loose. Unconvinced of his mediocrity, I watched to see if the great man had indeed been normalized. I was deprived of such a vision, but I was not disappointed.
1. In his first at bat, on that sunny day in Seattle, Ichiro took four or five fastballs from Jake Arrieta, then pulled one of them–way low and in with three balls, an obvious fourth–into right field along the ground between the first and second basemen. Close on the heels of this immediately uncharacteristic success, Ichiro stole second base and made it to third when the catcher chucked it away, providing additional evidence that, for one, speed don’t slump, and that, for two, you’ve got to get on base to steal. Thirdly, working with the postulate that you don’t have to hit home runs to score with speed, Ichiro scored easily on a Brendan Ryan ground ball out.
2. His second time up, hitting with a 2-1 lead, Ichiro rapped a first pitch fastball straight back at Arrieta, sending the ball glancing off of the pitcher’s shin and into foul territory between first base and home, where it rolled to a stop, out of reach of the first baseman while Ichiro trotted through first base easily. This is the real Ichiro, not bizarro Ichiro, the expert at sending grounders into the infield like a firecracker into a sandpit, that spin and dance out of the arm’s reach like pinballs. Today, through two hitters, I’ve seen no incapable doppelgangers or waxy bobblehead dolls. Just Ichiro.
3. Ichiro took a hard sinker on the inside corner for a strike just before watching the hapless Michael Saunders get pegged out at second base on a steal attempt. The failed steal sucked the life out of the at bat, and Ichiro hit a soft liner to second base for the out.
4. Against young reliever Pedro Viola, who uses a roundhouse pitching wind-up that could’ve been orchestrated by Frank Viola, Ichiro showed bunt a little, took a few pitches and worked the count to 2-1 before lofting a fastball to center field. He should have hit it harder, but the team already held the lead and the Mariners closed out another one, to rise a game above .500. A .500 day for Ichiro on a .500 team. That’s the Ichiro I know, if not the team.
Sidenote: I just discovered Super Ichiro Crazy!, a site by Steve Mandich devoted to the life and career of Henry Kissinger. No, no, it’s an Ichiro site! Check it out, you’ll find lots of great images and information about Ichiro over the years, well pre-dating my own small obsession.