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Sports : Monday, February 22, 1999

Mariners will get close look at visiting Japanese stars
By Bob Finnigan
Seattle Times staff reporter

PEORIA, Ariz. - Most eyes, certainly those of Seattle hitters, will be on Ichiro Suzuki when he leads a three-player group from the Orix Blue Wave to start workouts with the Mariners tomorrow.

And for good reason, since Suzuki, a compact and quick outfielder, reportedly is one of the best hitters in the world. He is a three-time MVP of Japan's Pacific League, a .350 lifetime hitter with a run of five straight batting titles.

One or two of the Mariners' top baseball men also will be taking a look at pitcher Nobuyuki Hoshino. The left-hander is the most veteran of the contingent that will practice with the Mariners and play four games as part of the working agreement between Seattle and Orix.

Mac Suzuki, whose hometown of Kobe is home to the Blue Wave, gave the scouting report last week.

"Hoshino is very good, has been a big winner over in Japan," he said. "He's a skinny guy who doesn't throw hard but has a great curveball, a big breaking curveball."

Seattle personnel director Roger Jongewaard, who spent several weeks scouting Japan and Australia over the winter, said: "You're always looking for a guy to specialize in getting a left-handed hitter or two out. We want to see Hoshino pitch here."

While Seattle dreams of putting Ichiro Suzuki in its lineup, it isn't likely to happen any time soon. At age 25, he is still three years away from 10-year free agency.

But Hoshino is a different matter, one year away from free agency at age 33. With a 157-120 lifetime mark, he won in double figures 11 straight years until 1998, when he fell to 6-10 with a 5.12 earned-run average, well above his lifetime ERA of 3.57.

Hide Sueyoshi, Jongewaard's assistant and a club official on loan from Orix, said the veteran pitcher got off to a bad start last year and never recovered.

"It could be an intriguing situation," Jongewaard said. "Of course, over here we tend to shy away from soft-tossers, and Hoshino's fastball is only 80, 82 miles an hour. But then, look at all the hard throwers we had in our bullpen last year and that didn't do us much good."

The plan is to use the two Orix pitchers, the other being minor-leaguer Nobuyuki Ebisu, in two of the four Mariner games.

If they like what they see of Hoshino, the Mariners will keep in mind that Manager Lou Piniella prefers experienced pitchers and, with only young lefties in camp, Seattle is seeking a veteran left-hander for relief.

The Mariners don't want to repeat the pass they took on Shigetoshi Hasegawa, who became an effective pitcher for Anaheim after Seattle did not sign him two years ago.

As curious as they are about Hoshino, however, Ichiro Suzuki will draw the most attention from the Mariners and other clubs scouting his appearances here.

Mac Suzuki on Ichiro Suzuki: "A great hitter, but they say you can get him out inside."

Jamie Moyer, who pitched on the major-league tour of Japan last fall, agreed.

"I thought he could be pitched to, but he is a good hitter," Moyer said. "He starts with a way-open stance and he dives into the pitch, swinging his front foot up and over."

Video of Suzuki shows balletic batting style, his speed on the bases and in the field, with several leaping and sliding plays in right, and a very strong arm.

Jongewaard watched Suzuki practice and play in Japan. He noted that Suzuki is not helpless against the inside pitch, but it appears to be the best way to pitch to him.

"I wish it was later in the spring, so pitchers would be sharper and able to hit the inside corner better," Jongewaard said. "Then we'd get a better idea."

Could Suzuki, a big Ken Griffey Jr. fan, get his wish to play alongside him? With Jay Buhner out of right field for some time, it seems perfect timing.

"They said they would if we'd send Griffey over there in a trade," Jongewaard said. "To them, Suzuki is what Junior is to our team. We politely declined."