After decade of excellence, Ichiro may miss All-Star Game
Ichiro Suzuki is the only player to play in the past 10 All-Star Games
He ranks sixh in fan voting for the 2011 game; polls close on Thursday
Ichiro has started hitting more like himself since taking a rare day off
Derek Jeter hasn't done it. Alex Rodriguez hasn't done it. Even Albert Pujols hasn't done it. In fact, only one man has appeared in each of the past 10 major league All-Star Games. But barring a serious surge at the ballot box or with his batting average, that man -- Seattle Mariners outfielder Ichiro Suzuki -- will be absent when baseball's galaxy of stars gathers in Phoenix on July 12 for this year's Midsummer Classic.
Seeing an All-Star Game without Ichiro, who has never missed one in his 10 big league seasons, would be "weird" says Koji Uehara, Ichiro's friend and fellow countryman who is a relief pitcher for the Baltimore Orioles.
But the circumstances for making the 34-man roster don't favor Ichiro, who has quite the All-Star resume. He has started nine of his 10 appearances, was the leading vote-getter in the majors in each of his first three major league seasons and he was the MVP of the 2007 game in San Francisco when he hit the only inside-the-park home run in All-Star history.
This year, however, Ichiro ranks sixth among American League outfielders in the fan voting for one of the three starting outfield spots. Polls close Thursday and unless something dramatic happens, Ichiro will not make the team on the fan ballot. He will still have some time to convince AL manager Ron Washington that he deserves one of the bench spots, but that too seems unlikely, given Ichiro's career-low .275 average -- he has never hit below .300 -- and the fact that the Mariners' are likely to be represented by one of their several deserving pitchers.
Felix Hernandez, the reigning AL Cy Young Award winner, is 8-7 with a 3.35 ERA and his 124 strikeouts are second in the AL. Another starter, rookie Michael Pineda, is 7-5 with a 2.65 ERA. Even little-known middle reliever David Pauley, who is 5-1 with a 1.44 ERA, can make a better statistical claim than Ichiro.
"I certainly hope that Ichiro makes the All-Star team,'' Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik said. "He's such a high-profile player nationally and internationally. He deserves to be there for what he's done for baseball. And, he's an exciting player.''
The Mariners have been promoting Ichiro's candidacy in emails, in-park messages at Safeco Field, social media and the team website as well as radio and TV coverage in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Alaska. One email, which the Mariners said was created by Major League Baseball, was entitled "Ichiro needs your help.''
His candidacy is being harmed by a variety of factors. One is Seattle's middling 39-42 record, which leaves them in third place in the weak AL West. Another is the the plethora of talented outfielders across the league. Finally, it would seem odd that the team with the worst offense in the league -- the Mariners are last in the AL in batting average, on-base percentage and runs scored -- would be represented by a slumping leadoff batter.
How Ichiro feels about all this is hard to say. He doesn't speak with reporters before a game, even though most major league players regularly do that regularly. After a game, he'll only answer questions about the game itself.
The Mariners say that reporters wanting to talk to Ichiro about anything other than the just-played game need to make their request 10 days to two weeks in advance.
Yet by all accounts -- statistics, opposing players, coaches and managers -- Ichiro is not close to an All-Star performance. He doesn't have power, having hit just one home run while posting the lowest slugging percentage of his career. Perhaps even more noteworthy is the fact that his record streak of 200-hit seasons is in every bit as much danger as his All-Star Game streak.
Ichiro has had at least 200 hits in each of his 10 major league seasons. Now, through a combination of bad luck, a slight decrease in his number of infield hits and perhaps the inevitable effects of age, he is on pace to finish well below that number. With 92 hits in 80 games, Ichiro is averaging 1.15 hits per game. If he were to play every game the rest of the way and hit at his current pace, he would finish with 185.
So far this season, Ichiro has 20 infield hits, less than 11 percent of balls he's hit into the infield, according to Fangraphs.com. That's down from 12.9 percent for his career. "His percentage is better than most Major Leaguers, but low for him,'' says Dave Cameron, the managing editor of Fangraphs.
Despite all this, Mariners manager Eric Wedge isn't concerned about Ichiro.
"He's human, that's about all you can say,'' Wedge says. "If any one can figure it out, it's Ichiro Suzuki. The only thing I can think of is that he hasn't been as aggressive as he has in the past. His routine, his workouts are about as consistent as they can be. He works hard, and his approach to the game is that he doesn't leave anything to chance.''
Ichiro started the season well, hitting .328 in April, but slumped to .210 in May. Newspaper columnists in the Pacific Northwest have been analyzing the slump, saying that Ichiro is showing his age and needs to be moved from the leadoff spot. Another said that Ichiro needs to change his approach to hitting. Still another opined that it would be impossible to put Ichiro on the All-Star team because the team is for players that are having All-Star seasons.
"He will not panic," says Uehara of his friend, who he stays in contact with through email. "And, I'm sure he [will] have solutions.''
Wedge might have already found the solution -- a day off.
On June 10 in Detroit, Wedge decided to bench Ichiro. It was the first time he'd sat since August of 2009, ending his streak of playing in 255 consecutive games. At the time, Ichiro was hitting .252, the lowest average he's ever had that deep into the season.
That night, Ichiro said, according to the Seattle Times, that he'd been fighting to stay "mentally tough,'' and hasn't given up on his approach, despite the tough times.
"You want to keep the same mental approach to your game and not let it sway,'' Ichiro said. "Because then you'll have bigger issues. Every challenge is big. This is another one. I'm being tested. This is something I need to overcome. And, not just as a baseball player. It's about overcoming that as a human being.''
After the day off, Ichiro responded with an 11-game hitting streak. In 16 games overall since his benching, he has batted .361/.378/486, and on Tuesday night he hit his first home run of the season.
"He's going to get it going, and it's going to help us all the way around,'' Wedge says. "I've managed against him. I know how good he can be. You never count him out.''
Even if All-Star voters do.
Mel Antonen is a baseball reporter in Washington, D.C. He can be heard on the Sirius-XM radio network.
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