In a New York Yankees season where ankles, hips, hands and wrists seem to be paying off a deal with the Devil, the mere fact that 39-year-old Ichiro Suzuki has stayed healthy is cause for celebration.
You honestly get the feeling that he could be hitting below the Mendoza line and still be hearing cheers from the fans in the Bronx, who at this point are just as happy to see a day without injury as a walk-off grand slam.
(Only one player ever, that I can recall, has been cheered by a Yankee Stadium crowd while sporting a sub-.200 average. That player happens to be Derek Jeter, a man who wouldn’t even be booed if he stole Monument Park and set it up in his own backyard. It’s about time we gave it to him anyway, the fans would figure.)
His recent surge notwithstanding, this is all to say, Ichiro’s season has been a successful one if only due to his distaste for the D.L.
But let’s talk about that recent surge. Since June 12, the Yankees’ right fielder has hit to the tune of a .333 average, discovered a power stroke at home and danced daintily around the bases the way he did for 11 years in Seattle. This offensive outburst has accounted for three of his five home runs, seven of his 18 RBI and seven of his 12 stolen bases on the year. In 14 days, he has risen his average nearly 20 points.
Measured in the past week, his numbers grow gaudier still. Since June 19, he is hitting .375, thanks in large part to three multi-hit games. One must understand that multi-hit games have been to the Yankees offense this year what sellout crowds have been to the Tampa Bay Rays every year. One must also understand that Ichiro was once so unassailable in the batter’s box he hit at this pace for an entire season, laying down a .372 average in 2004.
Those erstwhile exploits and these current ones can be credited to the same hitting formula: a short, quick swing, an uncanny ability to spoil pitches, an affinity for hitting the ball the other way, and a masked but ever-coiled power stroke to right field. Leave the ball on the outer half, and he’ll slap it to left; try to sneak one by him on the inner half and he just may yank it into the bleachers in right.
This is the kind of exhaustive hitting we have seen from Ichiro over the past two weeks. He is covering the plate so well there seems to be no chink in his armor, no good place to pitch him. Lefthanders have thrown their best sliders, diving low and away into the dirt, and Ichiro has simply reached out his bat head and dropped them into left. Right-handers have thrown their best heaters, bearing in on the fists, and Ichiro has slickly pulled his hands inside and jerked the ball to right. And any time a pitch has strayed low and inside – a power-happy zone for any left-handed batter – Ichiro has shown his taste for the short porch in right.
It should be remembered this happy marriage between Ichiro’s talents and the Yankee Stadium confines was part of the reason the Yankees resigned him in the offseason. His game is perfectly suited for this park, and at 39 years old, just as important as taking batting practice, maintaining fitness and eating well is finding a way to maximize what you have left.
So far this season, the Yankees’ foresight has been rewarded. He is hitting .315 at home, with an O.B.P. of .360 and a slugging percentage of .417. They aren’t herculean numbers, but compared to his .272/.307/.400 line in the vast expanses of Safeco Field last season, it is clear he is benefitting from the more hitter-friendly Yankee Stadium.
But to credit all of Ichiro’s recent success to the ballpark he calls home would be to discount his defiance of time. For a player his age, Ichiro is displaying a remarkable amount of bounce in his step, still springing from the batter’s box like a cat, still whirling around the bases on feet that barely seem to touch the ground.
With 71 hits, he ranks third on the team. With a .278 batting average, he ranks second. And with 12 stolen bases, first. The most important stat, though, might be this one: 72 games played. Indeed, with Jeter, Rodriguez, Teixeira, Granderson and Youkilis having played a combined 51 games, it is Ichiro’s durability that has been of most value to this team.
Everything else just feels like a bonus.