Ichiro needs to show leadership with more hustle
In a batting slump, star also seems to be passive in the field
Seattle Times staff columnist
Leading off the 11th inning of another in a series of remarkable Mariners wins Saturday night, catcher Miguel Olivo threw himself at first base, diving hard like a fullback at the goal line, beating the throw.
As Olivo slid across the bag, his head snapped forward and he violently face-planted into the dirt.
It was the kind of a play a leader makes; a gamer's play. Even though he had started 25 of the last 29 Mariners games, even though he might be the team's most indispensable player, Olivo, 32, hurled himself toward first, looking for a spark that would ignite a rally.
It was a Gashouse Gang-kind of play, all dirt and blood and sacrifice.
The Mariners, who are 26-26 and only 1 ½ games out of first in the anything-is-possible AL West, have made a lot of those plays over this past month.
But a day after Olivo's dive, another veteran had another chance to light another fire.
With Mariners starter Jason Vargas struggling Sunday against New York, Yankee Francisco Cervelli sent a lazy fly down the right-field line. Ichiro charged toward the green padding on the short wall in front of the box seats, but pulled up short of the wall and let the ball quietly land in the first rows.
The Mariners' right fielder, 37, who has played in 244 consecutive games, didn't have to dive into the stands like Derek Jeter in the 2001 ALDS against Oakland. The play wasn't that difficult.
He could have run hard to the ball, the same way Olivo ran hard to the bag. He could have made the kind of play a leader makes to pick up his team. He could have, should have, committed to the play.
This season is all about commitment. The Mariners got rid of Milton Bradley, Jose Lopez and Casey Kotchman because they weren't committed.
Don't get me wrong, Ichiro certainly isn't a pain in the clubhouse like those three were. For the last decade he has been one of the best players in baseball. He's one of the best players ever. But when he's hitting only .272, he needs to find another way to pick up his team, to be productive.
Coming to the end of the worst hitting month of his career, Ichiro has to realize that sometimes a veteran has to make a play that isn't reflected in the box score, but is recognized by every teammate on the field and in the dugout.
An Olivo play.
Making that catch on Cervelli's fly ball, or at least making a more assertive attempt at it, wouldn't have won the game, but it would have set a tone. It would have said, "We lost 101 games last year. I'm playing this season with the pedal to the floor. I'm sick of losing."
This very un-Ichi month has been a steady stream of weak ground balls and misguided outfield adventures. He has played passively.
In the fifth inning of Sunday's 7-1 loss to New York, he came up with the bases loaded and one out. It was the last real chance the Mariners had to get to starter CC Sabathia. But Ichiro, 1 for 24, weakly one-handed a 1-2-3 double play.
"He (Ichiro) has to work his way out of it," said Mariners manager Eric Wedge, who should be one of the early leaders for AL Manager of the Year. "He's going through a tough stretch, and Figgy (Chone Figgins) is going through a tough stretch."
There is no easy solution for Ichiro's troubles. Wedge can't rest him. He can't move him down in the order. He can't make him young again. Wedge has to live with this slump and hope that Ichiro can hit about .385 in June.
But Wedge has to move Figgins from the two hole, to the nine. It has to be done now, starting with Monday's game against Baltimore. In an 0-for-19 slump, Figgins' average has dropped to .193.
For Figgins, it's May Day at the end of May.
This summer, as they build toward 2012 and beyond, the Mariners still can be full of surprises. With all of their offensive challenges, they have won nine of their last 11. They've given fans a reason to come to the park.
Wedge has found leadership in Olivo, Brendan Ryan, Adam Kennedy and Jack Cust. But he needs more than he's getting from Ichiro and much more than he's getting from Figgins.
Miguel Olivo's Saturday face plant should symbolize how the Mariners are going to play in 2011. This season is all about dirt and blood and sacrifice.
About Steve Kelley
Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation.
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