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Thursday, Sept. 11, 2003

SPORTS SCOPE

Ichiro needs to learn how to pace himself


It has been painful to watch, but predictable.

Jack Gallagher

For the second season in a row Seattle Mariners superstar Ichiro Suzuki is struggling through a late-season slump.

This year it hasn't just affected his batting average, but also the Mariners'chances to return to the postseason for the third time in four years.

Ichiro's average has plummeted from an American League-leading .342 on Aug. 16 to .314 through Sept. 9 and he now stands eighth in the AL batting race.

More importantly, Seattle has squandered a four-game lead in the AL West over the A's during that time period, and now trails Oakland by 2 1/2 games.

Proof positive that as Ichiro goes, so go the Mariners.

Last year Ichiro was on fire (.357) before the All-Star Game, but cooled off considerably (.280) afterward and finished with a .321 average.

This year he hit .352 before the All-Star break, but has batted only .243 after it.

In 2001, when he won the AL MVP and Rookie of the Year awards and led the Mariners to an AL-record 116 victories, Ichiro seemed to do it on adrenaline alone over the last few weeks of the season.

It was a spectacular performance and his team's results were equally fantastic.

But in the major leagues, that is probably going to be the best year Ichiro ever has.

Batting .350 with 242 hits and 56 stolen bases (both tops in the majors that year), in 157 games was incredible, but will be difficult to match.

I sense that Ichiro thinks he can have a season like that every year, and though it is an admirable goal to strive for, it is not realistic.

News photo
Ichiro Suzuki is still having trouble adjusting to the grind of a 162-game regular-season schedule in the major leagues.

Just as when Ichiro had 210 hits and batted .385 for the Orix BlueWave back in 1994.

That was his career-best season in Japan and he didn't approach those numbers again over a full season.

He did bat .387 in 2000 (his final season in Japan), but that was in an injury-shortened campaign in which he played only 105 of 140 possible games.

Hideki Matsui of the New York Yankees has struggled the past several weeks of the season as well, but this is his first campaign in the majors, so he is still learning the ropes.

This is Ichiro's third go-round in the majors, and it appears as if it's time for him to adjust his game to make it last the entire season.

He has become well-acquainted with the rigors of the travel and challenge of a 162-game schedule, which includes a lot more day games than he played in Japan.

Both Ichiro and Matsui are among the best-conditioned athletes in the majors, so it is not a question of fitness, but rather pace.

Unlike their compatriot Tsuyoshi Shinjo, who is more concerned with his off-field image, Ichiro and Matsui stay in shape and work on their games year-round.

Many foreign players who have played in Japan over the years have noted how -- with all the preseason training and pre-game practice -- Japanese players wear down in the second half of the season.

Foreign players have never quite understood this part of Japanese baseball and have often said: "You save yourself for the games and the entire season."

To some degree, I think this is what we are seeing with Ichiro.

Ichiro continues to play every day and run out every ground ball at full speed, which is impressive, but he can't go on like this forever.

As one major league executive told me back during the 2001 season: "I never saw him play this hard in Japan. It's great, but I wonder how long he can keep it up?"

The answer is, not very much longer at this rate.



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