Pitchers still can't solve the riddle of how to get Seattle's Ichiro Suzuki out
Conventional wisdom in baseball says every hitter has a weakness that a pitcher can exploit. Give advance scouts enough time, and they'll ferret out that hole in a player's swing, which explains why rookies who burst on the scene one year so often fall on their faces the next. But the performance of Mariners rightfielder Ichiro Suzuki over the first two months of the season is enough to send a shiver up the spine of every pitcher he faces: With a year of major league experience under his belt, the 2001 American League MVP is even more dangerous this time around. "He came into the league and tore it up, and no one has figured out how to pitch him," says teammate Mark McLemore. "It's like he's figuring them out."
At week's end Ichiro was on track for another batting title, leading the majors with a .375 average and hitting .523 with runners in scoring position. He has also addressed the one knock against him—that he drew few walks and thus didn't get on base as much as he should. After walking just 30 times last season, he had already drawn 27 this year and was leading the American League with a .446 on-base percentage. Clearly Ichiro remains as much of a mystery to opponents as he was the day he arrived. "The holes he has are small holes," says Orioles manager Mike Hargrove. "He doesn't have one tremendous weakness."
Most teams try to pound Ichiro inside, hoping to back him off the plate and at least make him uncomfortable enough that he can't settle in and use his exceptional hand-eye coordination to punch the ball virtually anywhere he wants. That strategy apparently doesn't work. What's more, Ichiro can make something happen even when he does get fooled. With his blazing speed from home to first (he's been timed at 3.7 seconds), he often beats out weak grounders for hits. Ichiro leads the majors in infield hits this season with 29, including three on Sunday in Seattle's 11-8 victory over the Orioles.
Nor is trying to pitch around Ichiro the answer. He's an excellent bad-ball hitter who can make solid contact with pitches well out of the strike zone. Sometimes the opposing team simply gives up: Through Sunday, Ichiro had a league-high 11 intentional walks. So dominant has he been that manager Lou Piniella moved him to third in the batting order for Sunday's game. "We're going to take a look at it, and if I like what I see, it'll stay," says Piniella. "Now at least, if they walk him, we'll have the meat of the order up."
Time to Get Rolen?
In general manager Ed Wade's perfect world his Phillies would be leading the NL East, and third baseman Scott Rolen—who plans to test free agency after this season—would be hitting over .300 and driving in runs at will. Attention would be focused on a playoff run rather than on Rolen's uncertain future.
Alas, the world is flawed, and so are the Phils, who at week's end were 23-32, seven games behind the division-leading Braves. As May ended, Rolen's average had sunk to .240, he had driven in just five runs all month, and he was being booed at Veterans Stadium. Last Saturday manager Larry Bowa tried to light a spark by moving rightfielder Bobby Abreu to center (benching Doug Glanville), starting the recently acquired Jeremy Giambi in right and bumping Rolen up from the heart of the order to second. Early returns were positive: Rolen homered twice and drove in five runs in an 8-4 win over the Expos that night. On Sunday he had a single and two walks and scored twice in an 18-3 win.
Pressure for bigger changes will build if the team doesn't soon get into the division race. The Phillies have two blue-chippers in Triple A: outfielder Marlon Byrd, 24, who had seven home runs and 10 stolen bases at week's end, and righthanded starter Brett Myers, 21, who was 4-4 with a 3.62 ERA. Despite pleas from the fans and the media to bring up the prospects, Wade wants to give them a full year at Triple A.
Then there's the Rolen situation, which has become even more tense recently. "Mentally, I'm struggling right now," he said, an unusually candid admission for Rolen.