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Originally published Thursday, March 12, 2009 at 8:54 PM

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Larry Stone

Ichiro vs. Lincecum a standoff, but pitcher relishes the battle

Ichiro was back on American turf Wednesday and appeared to be in midseason form. In a sartorial sense, anyway. As he exited Scottsdale Stadium...

Seattle Times baseball reporter

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Ichiro was back on American turf Wednesday and appeared to be in midseason form.

In a sartorial sense, anyway. As he exited Scottsdale Stadium after Team Japan's 6-4 win over the San Francisco Giants in a tuneup for the second round of the World Baseball Classic, his outfit was thoroughly Ichiroian.

That is to say: Garish and eclectic. Lavender T-shirt over a green-and-beige striped long-sleeve shirt, with tapered bluejeans, backward red cap, and wraparound white sunglasses.

As for his play in the game, that also had Ichiro written all over it, just like the three autographed balls he sent over to the Giants' clubhouse at the request of legend Willie Mays. The balls are believed to be earmarked for Mays' "Say Hey" Foundation.

Ichiro, fresh off Monday's long plane flight from Tokyo, started the game in a much-anticipated matchup against Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum. The University of Washington star was a firsthand witness to Ichiro's Mariners breakout in 2001.

"When he came over, it was a big deal to them and a big deal to the baseball world," Lincecum said. "It's one of those things where you're pulling for the Mariners, and pulling for Ichiro to do his thing. He set the precedent."

And now Lincecum is setting a precedent for skinny, unorthodox right-handers, having put up a brilliant 2008 season with an 18-5 record and major-league-leading 265 strikeouts.

We won't mention, yet again, how Lincecum could have been Ichiro's teammate had the 2006 draft, in which the Mariners took Brandon Morrow with the fifth overall pick, bypassing Lincecum, gone differently.

Promise.

This was the world's first Ichiro-Lincecum meeting, the duo having missed each other in Lincecum's two previous springs. Ichiro took a ball, then had his bat sawed off by a Lincecum fastball, grounding out to second. But Ichiro worked Lincecum for a walk in his next at-bat, fighting off two tough 2-2 pitches on the hands.

"I have to see him in the season; I can't say anything based on Arizona," Ichiro said during his brief comments to the Japanese media before he hurried out of the stadium, escorted by a police officer.

That meeting could occur at Safeco Field on May 22-24, when the Giants come to town for an interleague game.

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"It was a little different," Lincecum said of facing Ichiro. "All of those guys have those distinguished swings. It's a little different than over here. But you still see that it's ball over there. They're disciplined, and guys like Ichiro are still trying to get their work in, and still trying to do their thing."

Ichiro's final at-bat, facing right-hander Justin Miller, was classic Ichiro: On a low pitch, he blooped a soft single into right field that just eluded the glove of the second baseman.

That hit made Giants first baseman Travis Ishikawa, a fourth-generation Japanese-American who won a state baseball championship in 2001 for Federal Way High School, shake his head in wonder.

Ishikawa had played first base for the Giants in an interleague game at Safeco Field in 2007. Just called up from the minors, however, Ishikawa couldn't work up the courage to chat with Ichiro during a pitching change.

This time, however, Ishikawa boldly told Ichiro at first base, "Nice hit."

"My bad," replied Ichiro.

"I said, 'No, that was a good piece of hitting,' " Ishikawa said. "It was a great piece of hitting. I don't know how he hits some of the balls he hits. That was incredible, the way he golfs that out of the ground."

Much of Japan's hopes for a repeat WBC title, naturally, are centered on Ichiro, though his Mariners teammate, Kenji Johjima, has outhit him so far.

Johjima didn't start Wednesday but came in as the designated hitter in the sixth and delivered an opposite-field single. In his other plate appearance, Johjima was hit by a pitch from Francis Beltran squarely in his back.

Johjima hit .500 (5 for 10) with a homer and three RBI in Tokyo as Japan advanced, along with Korea, to the second round in San Diego, which starts Sunday. After the long flight from Tokyo, they are spending the week in Arizona getting acclimated.

Ichiro caused near panic in the streets of Japan by going 3 for 23 (.130) in five tuneup games before the WBC began, then outright hysteria with an 0-for-5 showing in their opening win over China, extending his hitless streak to 0 for 16.

"If Ichiro remains asleep, it will be a tough battle for Samurai Japan," wrote a columnist in the Sports Nippon newspaper.

Ichiro woke up with four hits in two games against archrival Korea — one win and one loss — and goes into the second round with a .286 average (4 for 14). In the initial WBC, he had a similar start, going 4 for 16 in the pretournament exhibition games and 3 for 13 at the outset of real games. But he finished the tournament with a 9-for-20 streak in the final two rounds.

Ichiro declined a request to speak to two Seattle reporters, so we'll have to wait until his annual "State of the Ichiro" address when he shows up in Mariners camp. That will occur whenever Japan is ousted or wins it all. The championship game is March 21 at Dodger Stadium.

Can't wait to hear what he says — and see what he wears.

Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or lstone@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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About Larry Stone

Larry Stone gives an inside look at the national baseball scene every Sunday. Look for his weekly power rankings during the season.
lstone@seattletimes.com

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