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Sports : Tuesday, May 22, 2001

Ichiro's hot streak has only just begun
By Bob Sherwin
Seattle Times staff reporter

It's confession time for most of us. How many really believed that Ichiro would have the kind of impact he has had on American baseball in such a short time?

Perhaps it was just big-league arrogance that prevented us from projecting great things. At least we had an excuse. We couldn't judge because we never saw him play in those seven seasons in Japan, but what does it say about all those major-league scouts who couldn't or wouldn't prod their teams into bidding for him last winter?

What the Mariners got is a bargain as Ichiro takes his place among the most exciting rookies in the 100-plus-year history of the game, although some might quarrel with his "rookie" status. He's third in the league in hitting (.365), first in hits (73), first in steals (15), first in runs (40) and first in hitting with runners in scoring position (.571).

As impressive as those stats are, he may just be getting warmed up. He answered the biggest question coming into the season: would this seven-time Japan League batting champion lose in the transition stepping up to a new level? Now after his first 200 at-bats in the major leagues, it appears the conversion rate is one-to-one.

A look at Ichiro's accumulative monthly stats in his seven years in Japan fits into his pattern here. He averaged .345 in April (191 for 554) for seven seasons in Japan. In his first month with the Mariners, he hit .336, a bit less but reasonable considering he was facing virtually all the pitchers for the first time.

In his seven Mays in Japan, he batted .371 (227 for 611). With nine games remaining this month, Ichiro is hitting .405 (34 for 84) for Seattle. For his career in Japan, he hit .359 in April-May combined. In nearly two months here, he's hitting .365.

"In Japan, I already had my position on the team," Ichiro said through interpreter Hide Sueyoshi, "so I didn't have to be in top condition on the first day of the season. If I was in top condition on the first day, I would be tired by the end of season. I pace myself as the season goes on. By May and June, I get in a groove. That's my pattern."

Indeed, his three best hitting months in Japan were May (.371), June (.392) and July (.373). He has hit .400 or better eight times in those months.

"The month of April is a month of preparation. Maybe that doesn't sound good for the team," he said, "but it's the way I prepare. Then as the season goes on, I get better."

Jim Colborn, the first-year Los Angeles Dodger pitching coach, identified and helped sign Ichiro when he was Seattle's Pacific Rim scout. He said that major-league pitching "is a little stronger than in Japan and they're going to find the most effective way to pitch to him. I'm not sure he's going to hit .360 or .370 all year, but he'll be among the league leaders.

"He's the real deal. He's carving up the major leagues the same way he did it over there. It's not the same to compare him to other rookies because he has already done it. What no one wants to realize is that baseball in Japan is close to baseball in America."

Ichiro, dubbed the "Sultan of Slap" by Seattle Times baseball writer Larry Stone, is known for his slap-and-run style. But Colborn said when Ichiro gets hot, he'll spray line drives all over the field.

"He's going to continue to do what he's doing," Colborn said. "It's now a matter of how the league adjusts to him."

It is a game of adjustments, and Ichiro plays it as well as anyone. It's fundamental to his success, how he adjusts his stroke, his stance, his bat speed from pitch to pitch, at-bat to at-bat and pitcher to pitcher.

What makes him remarkable is he does it without much video work. He doesn't have a detailed book on every pitcher as Tony Gwynn does. It's all in his head.

"It's hard to throw the same pitch twice to him. He has entered that into his computer (mind)," Colborn said. "He's a lot like Edgar (Martinez)."

Ichiro understands that "adjustments have to be made."

"When I get up, I feel and get a sense of the pitcher," he said. "I analyze what he might throw me, then I trust my sense of the pitcher and make the adjustment. I want to have the same pace and pattern here (as in Japan). The more information I get on opposing pitchers the better my performance may be. I can observe and use that.

"At the same time, opposing teams get more information on me.''

Yet no one has figured him out, which isn't surprising considering no one could in Japan. The best counter-measure that Boston and New York both tried was to hit him flush in the back with a fastball. That had no discernible affect on his subsequent at-bats but the battering, the wear-and-tear and the travel of a 162-game season might ultimately erode his efficiency.

The major-league season is 27 games longer than Japan's. Ichiro slowed some in Japan late in the season. His career average for August is .343 and .323 for September. But he also has been on the disabled list three times in his career during those months, which may have impacted his average.

Manager Lou Piniella can mitigate that concern by judiciously resting him. Ichiro, John Olerud and Carlos Guillen are the only Mariners to play in all 43 games.

Piniella is using off days (two this week) to give Ichiro natural rest days but plans to give him days off sporadically as summer approaches.

Colborn, who has pitched batting practice many times to Ichiro over the years and knows his swing well, said the Dodgers might be the first team that can stop him when the Mariners go there July 6-8.

"Tell him I'm getting my arm in shape and when he comes down here, I'm going to be activated just to face him," Colborn said in jest. "Then it will be shobu (Japanese version of a showdown). I know just how to pitch him out."