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
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 cafe 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, changeups 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.
COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER Slap happy Ichiro tied a Division Series record with 12 hits, many of which never left the infield.
THE SCOUT'S VIEW
SI asked major league scouts who have closely followed the
playoff teams to help prepare reports on the four clubs in the
League Championship Series. The scouts were promised anonymity
in exchange for their candor. Here's what they revealed.
.350. 8 HRs, 69 RBIs
Wade Boggs with speed. Pitch him inside, otherwise he'll get
comfortable and hit the ball all over.
.267, 25 HRs, 110 RBIs
Showed power this year but hasn't been swinging well recently.
Strikes out a lot. Can be pitched away.
.331, 37 HRs, 141 RBIs
Pressed against Indians and had awful series, swinging through
fastballs and chasing soft stuff out of the zone.
.306, 23 HRs, 116 RBIs
Best DH ever. Very dangerous in RBI situations but teams are
starting to get him out up and away.
.302, 21 HRs, 95 RBIs
Looks tired. Over last third of season good fastballs ate him up.
Great hands on defense.
.292, 4 HRs, 33 RBIs
Solid outfielder and good veteran to have around but offers
little pop at a crucial power position.
.265, 10 HRs, 42 RBIs
Handles pitchers well but won't throw out good base stealers. Not
much help with the bat.
.260, 15 HRs, 64 RBIs
Another power position in which Mariners get little production.
Likes ball middle in and down.
.286, 5 HRs, 57 RBIs
So-so range and average arm at short. Good utilityman, but flawed
stand-in for injured Carlos Guillen.
Not a good offensive bunch. Piniella is very loyal to OF Jay
Buhner, who doesn't catch up to good fastballs anymore. OF Al
Martin simply can't hit. OF Charles Gipson has plus arm and
speed. C Tom Lampkin has power but isn't a good catcher. SS
Ramon Vazquez a defensive replacement, nothing more. 3B Ed
Sprague can hit down-and-in pitches but little else.
Freddy Garcia, RHP (18-6, 3.05 ERA) Ace in the making but not
quite there yet. Has mid-90s fastball and good changeup and
curve. His focus tends to lapse. Has to be the guy to carry the
Jamie Moyer, LHP (20-6, 3.43 ERA) Pitched very well in second
half of season. Finesses hitters with terrific changeup he
throws 40 or 50 times a game. Locates well and ties aggressive
teams in knots.
Aaron Sele, RHP (15-5, 3.60 ERA) Money pitch is his curveball.
Gets into trouble when overusing 87-mph fastball. In [17-2] loss
to Indians last Saturday he threw four curves in 35 pitches and
got killed. When he doesn't have command, he's in trouble.
Paul Abbott, RHP (17-4, 4.25 ERA) Fastball in low 90s, but best
pitch is changeup. Another guy who has to have his command.
Throws curveball and a little slider, but changeup is his only
Very good. If the starters get into the seventh, Mariners hard
to beat. RHP Kazuhiro Sasaki, the closer, has dominant splitter
that's hard to lay off because it looks just like fastball. LHP
Arthur Rhodes, a southpaw rarity: overpowers lefties and
righties with mid-90s fastball and big slurve. RHP Jeff Nelson
has sweeping slider, but command not nearly as sharp as early in
season. Over the last few weeks RHP Jose Paniagua slumped and
lost command of fastball. LHP Norm Charlton has good splitter
and can be tough on righties and lefties.
HOW TO BEAT THEM
Anyone who compares this team to 1998 Yankees is nuts. Mariners
were constructed for Safeco Field with pitching and defense, but
do they have enough offense? Even though it scored a lot of runs
during the season, this isn't a great lineup, especially if
Ichiro doesn't get on base.
"It's very simple," Cameron said after Game 4. "Time and again,
Ichiro has been our go-to guy. When he hits, we win."