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AROUND THE HORN / ROSS NEWHAN

Suzuki, Mariners Look Worse for Wear

September 07, 2003|ROSS NEWHAN

It isn't totally a case of now-you-see-him, now-you-don't.

It's just that, for the second year in a row, the Seattle Mariners are battling a late-season fade matching one by Ichiro Suzuki, their tone-setting leadoff man.

Ichiro, as he prefers, began a weekend series with the Baltimore Orioles having had only nine hits in his last 70 at-bats and no multi-hit games since Aug. 15.

He was hitting an American League-leading .343 then, and seemed likely to win his second batting title in three years with the Mariners, after having won seven straight in Japan, where he still has a huge following. The possibility of another batting title remains, considering that Derek Jeter leads with a modest .322, but Ichiro's average has fallen to .316 and he is hitting .241 since the All-Star break after a .352 first half.

The slide is reminiscent of last year's. He hit .357 before the break in 2002, .280 after it -- only .248 in September and October -- and finished at .321, compared to a .350 debut with the Mariners in 2001.

"I just think he gets a little tired late in the season," General Manager Pat Gillick said from Baltimore. "We play a longer schedule than he did in Japan, we travel a lot more miles and he's on base a lot, always using his legs.

"He's a strong guy but not a big guy and I just think he wears down a bit. [Manager Bob Melvin] has done a good job of resting him, but he's a big part of our club. He makes things go. We're in this thing with Oakland right now and it's hard to take him out."

As former manager Lou Piniella pleaded for help last year, the Mariners were unable to hold off the A's and Angels down the stretch.

Now they are involved in a division battle with the A's and a wild-card battle with the A's and Boston Red Sox.

Not all of the burden is on Ichiro, of course, but he's the "ultimate competitor," Melvin said. "When we struggle he puts a lot of it on his shoulders."

He is also something of a bad-ball hitter who tends to expand the strike zone when struggling, so pitchers have been working him with fastballs up in the zone.

"Hitting is hitting," Ichiro, 34, said in Tampa, insisting he was not fatigued.

"Sometimes it is good, sometimes it is not good -- with no reason. The situation frustrates me, but otherwise I am too wise to give up. I feel the responsibility of not hitting and I will not run from its reality."

Expo Misery

The Montreal Expos returned to their Puerto Rican timeshare this weekend with an announcement expected soon -- have we heard that before? -- on how the 2004 season will be divided again between Montreal and San Juan.

In the meantime, baseball's operation of the Expos continues to be a disgrace.

The team was not allowed to bolster its wild-card bid with any kind of payroll-inflating transaction before the Aug. 31 deadline for acquiring players who would be eligible for the playoffs, and the Expos have not even been allowed to make roster-easing September call-ups of minor league players, as every other team does.

Since sweeping a four-game series from Philadelphia in Montreal to surge back into wild-card contention, the Expos were basically eliminated by losing six in a row on the road heading back to San Juan.

Only the Colorado Rockies have a worse road record, and Manager Frank Robinson returned to Puerto Rico saying, "We get down two or three runs [on the road] and it's like nothing is there." He also said the club's chemistry on the road was lacking and questioned the composition.

"We have a large Latin American contingent here," he said.

"Do you see them running with the other guys, going out for dinner or drinks? Or do you see it working the other way?

"No."

Is Robinson possibly paving the way for his retirement at the end of the season?

Yes.

The Only Rivalry?

That seemed to be an uncharacteristic bit of smugness from New York Yankee General Manager Brian Cashman when he reflected on the Yankee-Boston Red Sox rivalry and told Sports Illustrated, "Players who put on the uniforms for these two teams realize pretty quickly that the rest of baseball is Club Med."

Anyone watching the five-game renewal of the Chicago Cub-St. Louis Cardinal rivalry, with all of the September emotion, knockdown pitches, gestures and rhetoric between managers, wouldn't have compared it to a day at the beach.

The Cubs won four of the five in the series that ended Thursday, surging closer in the National League Central and providing another example of how far they've come under Manager Dusty Baker only a year after losing 95 games. They also showed how immune they are to the gamesmanship Cardinal Manager Tony La Russa delights in.

This time, La Russa went in talking about how Kerry Wood and Mark Prior are basically headhunters and any team condoning that practice was asking for trouble. That was before opposing pitchers Matt Clement and Dan Haren made dartboards of each other and La Russa and Baker had a long-distance shouting match from their dugouts.

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