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Tuesday, June 13, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Ichiro's on another upswing

Seattle Times staff reporter

ANAHEIM, Calif. — They'll have trouble translating this one back in Japan, but the latest word on Ichiro's batting is: "flat-dab."

As in: "The guy can just flat-dab hit."

That, according to Mariners manager Mike Hargrove, is pure Panhandle Texan talk.

Ichiro seemingly has, if not reinvented himself, reinvigorated the wonder, and helped recharge Seattle's batteries. Ichiro is hitting .461 since May 19, and the Mariners have gone 14-9 during that stretch and have a chance to right their season.

"Ichi makes you realize what's possible," said left fielder Raul Ibanez. "You know what they say about hitting being contagious? Well, it's true.

"But he also makes us go as an offense, because the more he's on, the more other teams have to think what he's doing. And when he's on a lot like he has been, then they're really going to have their concentration divided."

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When he hit .287 in April, it appeared that last year's inconsistent season was possibly still hanging over him.

Ichiro says he hasn't changed anything, not even with a dropoff from a record 262 hits in 2004 to 206 last season.

"At least nothing on a conscious level," he said through interpreter Antony Suzuki. "My style is always the same. Perhaps as an observer you have seen something I have changed, but it is not an intended change."

Good thing.

Since May 7, Ichiro has hit in 31 of 33 games and has had multiple hits 22 times. He has 102 hits in 65 games, a pace for 254 hits.

Ichiro is on pace for 695 at-bats. If he continued at that pace, he would have to hit .387 the rest of the way to reach 263 hits.

"Every now and then comes a guy who can handle a bat like this," Mariners hitting coach Jeff Pentland said. "He'll sit on a pitch, like he waited for [Francisco] Liriano's slider last week, and he'll foul off pitches until he gets one he's looking for. And he'll rip it somewhere."

Hargrove noted Ichiro's exceptional hand-eye coordination — and his intelligence.

"He understands what the pitcher is trying to do with him, and he has a swing for it every time," he said. "[The Angels] tried to pitch him [inside], and he makes them pay. A lot of clubs try to work him down and away, and he makes them pay."

Part of Ichiro's approach, Hargrove noted, is his willingness to get behind in the count, a situation most hitters try to avoid.

"He's the one guy I've seen who doesn't have to be ahead in the count to be a good hitter," Hargrove said. "Now, I know there are people like this — always have been. But he does it over and over with no ill effect. Usually that catches up to you, but not him."

Teams know Ichiro's penchant for taking the first pitch, and they tell their pitchers to emphasize the first-pitch strike with him.

In 305 plate appearances this season, Ichiro has swung at the first pitch just 44 times, with a .440 batting average (11 for 25).

With two strikes, he is hitting .319.

Mariners catcher Kenji Johjima said he could not compare his teammate now with the Ichiro he saw back in their native country. When Johjima started with Fukuoka, Ichiro already had hit .385, in the 1994 season with Orix.

"When we were opponents in Japan, he was very good. And that was when I used to study him, trying to get him out," Johjima said. "Now as a teammate, I don't look at him like that anymore. If he has changed as a player, I don't notice it."

But Johjima can tell you how tough opposing catchers have it, trying to get Ichiro out right now.

"I know how I felt back in the day when we were on different clubs," he said. "I'd just throw my hands up. In Japan, that's like saying you tip your cap to him. You'd throw your hands up, as if you're saying, 'There's nothing more I can do.'

"Believe me, I used a lot of different approaches, everything we had from every pitcher we had. He'd hit them all."

Ichiro, who regards himself as a deep thinker in all things including his sport, does not discuss hitting with the media in a public forum. His rationale is that he believes technique is so complicated that listeners would not comprehend, and that much of it involves state of mind as much as mechanics, hands, head, stance, stride or stroke.

"It is very difficult for me to explain all that ran through me emotionally after last season," he said. "As we all know, I had conversations with the manager and the general manager that involved my performance and other things. What I had done, what I reflected upon, is too much to discuss."

Last week, he got three hits off the Minnesota Twins' Liriano, seeming to swing at pitches out of the strike zone because he could place them where he wanted.

"I don't have that kind of feeling," he said. "But nothing is accidental. I am working as hard as possible. I work hard to create chances."

He stretched for an example of how hard it is to hit.

"A major-league hitter would have to be working 100 percent to get a hit even off a middle-school pitcher. But I don't think a middle-school pitcher has to be at 100 percent to get a major-league hitter out."

Ichiro said he felt excitement when he does well to help the team do well.

"I am like all players: I do get excited by good performances that help the team," he said. "Inside, you get excited when things go well, disappointed when they don't. But I always try not to show emotion."

Thus it was he heard the news that not only had he been linked to one Hall of Famer, George Sisler, for breaking his one-season hit record, but last week was linked to Ty Cobb.

The link was forged last Wednesday when Ichiro recorded his 2,500th hit in pro ball — 1,278 in Japan and, at the time, 1,232 for the Mariners. He and Cobb are the only hitters to reach 2,500 hits by age 32.

"I didn't know there was any link being made, or any comparison," he said through interpreter Ken Green. "If that is so, I am very honored. At the same time I am happy, however, I don't want to lose anything of myself. I want to be sure I will always be myself."

This is not what opposing teams want to hear.

Ichiro resembles Cobb in one sense: He puts a premium on hitting the ball where it is pitched, rarely displaying power that is within his ability. Cobb reportedly once had a discussion in which he declared hitting home runs was not that tough and he'd show what he meant.

According to the tale, he went out the next day and hit two homers and had a third ball hauled in at the fence.

Ichiro has great power, generated by technique and bat speed, and shows it every day in batting practice when he hits balls Richie Sexson-like distances. But in games, he only rarely turns on a ball with a pure power swing.

And as to the idea he can do that whenever he wants, which sometimes seems the case, he just laughs and says, "I can't do that."

Bob Finnigan: 206-464-8276 or bfinnigan@seattletimes.com

Count the ways Ichiro gets his hits
Ichiro is willing to take pitches early in the count and hit from behind in the count. He is hitting .319 with two strikes. Here's how it breaks down for each pitch.
Count Pitches Balls CS Swings AB Hits Avg Take pct
0-0 305 124 137 44 25 11 .440 .856
0-1 156 78 22 56 26 5 .192 .641
0-2 65 31 0 34 21 7 .333 .477
1-0 124 39 36 49 22 10 .455 .605
1-1 138 50 18 70 31 10 .322 .493
1-2 121 38 1 82 49 13 .265 .322
2-0 39 15 8 16 6 5 .833 .590
2-1 68 17 8 43 20 13 .650 .368
2-2 97 21 1 75 47 18 .383 .227
3-0 15 7 5 3 1 0 .000 .800
3-1 24 4 4 16 9 4 .444 .333
3-2 46 9 1 36 22 6 .273 .217
CS: Called strikes. AB: At-bats. Take pct: Percentage of pitches not swung at.

Source: ESPN.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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