When he arrived for spring training with the Seattle Mariners in February—and even after he batted .375 with a 23-game hitting streak in the first six weeks of the season—no one could have foreseen how Ichiro Suzuki, coming to a team that was reeling from the defection of Alex Rodriguez, would respond to the pressures of a major league season and, possibly, the playoffs. It's one thing to slap singles off Triple A-caliber Japanese pitchers and rejects from the U.S. big leagues. It's quite another to sustain such hitting excellence through September despite facing a grueling schedule and the best pitching in the world.
Well, Ichiro wound up as the American League leader in batting (.350), hits (242), stolen bases (56) and average with runners in scoring position (.449). From his leadoff spot he sparked the Mariners to 116 wins, tying the major league record set by the 1906 Chicago Cubs. Further, with the pressure still churning during Seattle's dramatic yet sloppy three-games-to-two victory over the Cleveland Indians in the American League Division Series, it became clear that Ichiro is—hands down—the key to any hopes the Mariners have of upending the Yankees and reaching the World Series for the first time in their 25-year history. "It's very simple," says centerfielder Mike Cameron. "Time and time again, Ichiro has been our go-to guy. He hits, we win."
Against the Indians, Ichiro batted a Division Series-record .600, scored four runs and drove in three more to help save not only Seattle's season but also its hopes of joining the 1998 Yankees (114 regular-season wins) and the '27 Yanks (110 wins) as special clubs that capped dream seasons with a World Series title. (At the same time he forestalled the possibility that the Mariners would go down in history alongside those '06 Cubs, who lost in the World Series to the White Sox in six games, and the '54 Indians, who won 111 games before being swept by the New York Giants, as spectacular postseason flameouts.)
Entering Game 4 on Sunday afternoon at Jacobs Field, Seattle was in a vulnerable position for the first time this season. Following a 17-2 humiliation in Game 3, the Mariners trailed Cleveland two games to one and were about to face Tribe ace Bartolo Colon, who had thrown eight scoreless innings in the Indians' 5-0 Game 1 win. After hitting a league-best .288 during the season, Seattle was batting .204 in the Division Series against what was supposed to be a so-so staff. The heart of the Mariners' lineup was barely beating: Cameron, Bret Boone, Edgar Martinez, John Olerud and Jay Buhner were 6 for 47 combined.
The Indians jumped to a 1-0 lead on Sunday before allowing Seattle to tie the score in the top of the seventh on Bell's sacrifice fly off Colon. With two outs in that inning and with Cameron on second and Al Martin on first, up came the lefthanded-hitting Ichiro. Cleveland manager Charlie Manuel slowly walked to the mound, debating with each step whether to stick with the gutsy but tiring Colon or call on lefty Ricardo Rincon, who had held lefthanded hitters to a .213 average during the season. "I thought, Well, here's my best pitcher and the league's leading hitter," Manuel said after the game. "He was still throwing good, and I had faith he was going to get him out." Bad call. After taking ball one, Ichiro poked Colon's second pitch, a 97-mph waist-high fastball, into rightfield, scoring Cameron and giving the Mariners a lead they'd never relinquish in the 6-2 triumph that evened the series.
On the Seattle bench reserve catcher Tom Lampkin laughed aloud. "I was sitting next to Olerud when Ichiro got the hit," Lampkin said. "I kept saying to John, 'How does he do it?' I don't even know if he's aware that guys are on base. His ability to stay on an even keel is amazing. I've never seen anything like it."
Almost as wondrous was the Division Series performance turned in by lefthander Jamie Moyer, who, in his masterly Game 2 and Game 5 victories, held the Tribe to two runs and eight hits over 12 innings. If the pizzazz-charged Ichiro is Seattle's whipped-cream-topped caf� mochaccino, the 38-year-old Moyer—a six-team, 15-year veteran—is a plain ol' cup of joe. Although his fastball rarely exceeds 85 mph, Moyer baffled the Indians' potent lineup with a dizzying array of changeups up, changeups down, change-ups left and changeups right.
On the Mariners' charter flight from Cleveland to Seattle the night before Game 5, Moyer and catcher Dan Wilson had a lengthy chat about how to pitch to the Indians. On the one hand Moyer could stick with the off-speed stuff that had been so effective in Game 2 when he gave up five hits and one run over six innings in a 5-1 victory. On the other there was the danger that Tribe hitters would be sitting on his changeups. "In the end we decided that Cleveland should have to adjust to Jamie," said Wilson. "If they were going beat him, they would have to hit the same stuff that won Game 2."
The Indians never had a chance. Moyer again surrendered only one run over six innings, and only once did he encounter trouble. In the top of the third, with one out and the bases loaded and Seattle leading 2-1, he had to face the Indians' Roberto Alomar—a .424 hitter this year with runners in scoring position. Moyer's first pitch, a 75-mph changeup, was well outside, but like his frustrated teammates, Alomar couldn't resist, and he hit into a killer 5-4-3 double play. "The crazy thing is how easy Moyer made that look," said Cleveland shortstop Omar Vizquel. "He's the Greg Maddux of the American League. You know what he's going to throw, but somehow he gets you. He plays with your mind."
Shortly following Game 5's final out, Moyer stood by his locker and poured a cold beer into a white plastic cup. As the media horde suddenly advanced on the pitching hero of the series, he had only a second to be alone. He took a sip of the brew and used his right sleeve to wipe the foam from his lips. Then he smiled. Moyer and the Mariners were one step closer to the World Series. It sure tasted good.