(Photo by Associated Press)
Here’s what Eric Wedge said on April 9 when Ichiro incurred the indignity of Mariner fans at Safeco Field by dropping down a bunt in the seventh inning with two outs, the Mariners trailing 2-1 to the Indians, and the tying run on third base:
“Hey, that’s part of his game. If it’s another foot to the left, we have a tie ballgame. That’s part of his game.”
The bunt wasn’t very good, Ichiro was thrown out, and the Mariners went on to lose 2-1, their sixth straight loss. It was eight games into the Mariners season — and eight games into Wedge’s Mariner managerial stint. He was still learning the quirks of Ichiro, who was, is and always will be an unorthodox player. Ichiro went into that game hitting .286, and it could be assumed at that point he was on his way to yet another .300-plus, 200-hit season, pretty much guaranteed.
Flash forward to last night, when Ichiro again dropped jaws — including mine — by dropping down a bunt in an incongruous situation: fifth inning, two men on and two out, Mariners down by three to Toronto after rallying from six runs down earlier to tie the game. Again, it wasn’t the greatest bunt, and he was thrown out on a close play.
I think there’s pretty much close to unanimity of anyone watching that game that Ichiro should have swung away there, when a double likely pulls the Mariners within one, and a base hit to the outfield sets them up better than does a potential bunt single. Of course, this tactic is something that Ichiro done periodically over the years, always raising eyebrows. But it’s been hard to knock him too much when he’s produced the way he has. It’s just part of his package. Unlike others, I don’t attribute this propensity to bunt in non-bunting situations to “selfishness,” but rather to Ichiro’s sincere belief that he is doing what’s best for the team, even if few others see it the same as him.
Here’s Wedge’s response this time: “I still want him to swing the bat right there. I know what he’s trying to do, He’s trying to keep the inning going. He felt like the third baseman was back and was trying to keep the inning going, to get to the next guy. But in that situation, with two outs, I want him swinging the bat.”
Wedge said he talked to Ichiro in the dugout about his views. By now, of course, Wedge has been managing the Mariners for more than four months, and it’s his team. By now, it is also obvious that Ichiro is not going to have a typical Ichiro season. And, I would maintain, by now it’s clear that Ichiro can’t resort to business as usual. He’s not beating out the infield hits he used to, nor the bunts. As I’ve discussed before, Ichiro has reached the stage of his career, at age 37, where he needs to re-invent himself as a hitter. And, I’d add, to re-think some of his strategies.
Wedge rightly gave him a little nudge in that direction last night.