Mariners: the Ichiro irony of a rush to contention

The veteran star may have begun the inevitable decline caused by age. But we've seen these slumps before.

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Ichiro Suzuki

The veteran star may have begun the inevitable decline caused by age. But we've seen these slumps before.

What’s the greatest irony of the rush to pennant contention by the improbably successful Seattle Mariners? The M’s are doing it amid one of the worst slumps of Ichiro Suzuki’s sensational career. The worse he does at the plate more the club wins. Ich was zip for six Saturday against the Yankees? Yeah, and the club still won it 5-4 in 12, taking two of three in the series that ended with a 7-1 loss Sunday (May 29).

The team’s 26-26 record may be raising pennant-chase expectations among fans. But the latter also need to face the notion that Ichiro, at age 37, may have started a career decline inevitable for every mortal except Satchel Paige.

Those, however, who fear Number 51 will never recover to his career norm and will finish below .300 with fewer than 200 hits this year may want to allay worries by Googling “Ichiro slump.” Turns out there are entries in that keyword selection from several recent seasons and you know what? Every time fans got obsessed with such “slumps,” Ichiro battled back. His lowest single-season average? It was .303 in 2005, with 206 hits.

Angie Mentink knows a little bit — well, a lotta bit — about hitting. Before Sunday’s game I asked the ROOT broadcaster and former University of Washington softball star whether she’s concerned about the Suzuki slump.

In the first place, she said, “balls aren’t dropping for him. If he were missing pitches, I might be worried but he’s making contact. He’s the type of guy who’ll go six for eight and start to turn it around.”

Ich hit his apex 2011 April 30 with a .328 mark. Since then he’s hit at a 20-for-98 clip. If you’re Chone Figgins (.193) Suzuki’s May mark of .204 would just about be good enough for the incentive bonuses to kick in.

Oddly, here again, Ich’s numbers have been even worse during his team’s — there’s no other term for it — unfathomable 10-2 run from May 16 through 28.

Sunday, the right-fielder led off with what has become a frequent scene this season: a tame tap-out to second base against C.C. Sabathia, a thrower he owned coming in with a career 21-for-58 (.362) record of success.

Ichiro came into the game on a pace for “just” 187 hits this year but the probable eventual boosting of his batting average should put him in range of making the 200 mark for the 11th-straight season.

Moreover, the team’s success has lessened the perennial necessity for fans, lacking pennant races, to dwell on individual achievements. It’s a good thing, too, given a no-star offense still positioned near the nadir of the league.

With the Yankees having chased Jason Vargas with a 6-0 lead in the third on Sunday, Ichiro again bounced out to second. In the fifth, with the bases loaded, fans were desperately asking for what Ich hasn’t delivered this season: a home-run poke to put the score at 7-4 New York. Instead he channeled hit-challenged Michael Saunders, tapping back to Sabathia to start a 1-2-3 double play that ended the threat. A seventh-inning dribble-out to first left Ichiro with no hits since a fifth-inning double on Friday (May 27).

By game’s end Ich, who had a splendid catch in the sixth, saw his average drop to .272, though it’s worth noting as the first third of the season expires Tuesday that the Hall of Fame-bound outfielder is still hitting better than any other everyday M’s player.

More to the point: If they’d won Sunday and Texas had lost, the Mariners actually would’ve entered the upcoming Baltimore series as the first-place club in the American League West.


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