PEORIA, Ariz. – Manager Eric Wedge dropped hints all winter, made them more pointed in camp and on Tuesday made news by naming Ichiro Suzuki as Seattle’s No. 3 hitter in the lineup.
In typical Ichiro-speak, the 10-time All-Star, who has batted almost exclusively first in the Seattle lineup for 11 seasons, said the move was not unexpected.
“I knew it was possible I’d be hitting elsewhere. I was always prepared to do what was best for the team,” Ichiro said. “I’m ready to pitch, too.”
The top of the new-look Mariners lineup looks like this: Chone Figgins, Dustin Ackley, Ichiro.
“Figgins will get the first shot at hitting leadoff,” Wedge said. “That’s where he was most successful with the Angels, the biggest pain for opposing teams. Ackley will hit second.
“The one-two spots are not set in stone. There are options. Ichiro is our No. 3 hitter.”
The change is the most significant lineup move since Ichiro signed with Seattle and took over the leadoff spot in 2001. Since then, he’d batted third 13 times.
Although most teams count on that No. 3 slot to produce runs, Ichiro insisted he will be the same hitter he has always been.
“Batting third won’t change my style as a hitter. Only the situation will change,” Ichiro said.
Wedge’s decision comes after the worst season in Ichiro’s career, a year in which he batted a career-low .272. A career .326 hitter, Ichiro’s career-high for RBI is 69, set in 2001, his first season with the Mariners.
The move was made to jump-start a lineup that has produced the lowest offensive numbers in the American League for years – in hopes that both Figgins and Ichiro will rebound from down years.
A lifetime .280 hitter, Figgins has hit .236 in two seasons with Seattle and appeared in only 81 games last year, batting .188.
Still, the change is most dramatic for Ichiro, who has batted leadoff 1,720 times in 1,733 games.
“I did a lot of thinking this offseason. I talked to our coaches, to (GM) Jack Zduriencik,” Wedge said. “It’s all about the best lineup we can put out there, one through nine.
“Ichiro batting third helps him and it helps us. Everyone wants to win, and Ichiro as much as anyone. Ichiro is on board, ready to go.”
Ichiro’s reactions – as translated from Japanese – were typically less than emotional. How did he take the news from Wedge?
“Anything can happen in this game. That’s part of the fun of this game,” Ichiro said. “We have to hope this is the right decision for the team, and give it our best.”
Someone asked if the move excited him.
“I feel like this every year about this time,” Ichiro said.
The move also comes in the final year of his contract with Seattle. At 38, he will take on a role he has never had for any length of time in the big leagues or Japan, where he played 851 games.
“If we get Ichiro and Figgy back on track, we’re a much, much better team,” Ackley said.
Shortstop Brendan Ryan had hoped to throw for the first time Tuesday but was held back again. “It was a big tease,” Ryan deadpanned. “When I do throw, it will be a light session. No sliders, no curves, maybe a few cutters.” Ryan said the team has been aware of his progress from disk problems in his neck that began last year, and that he fully expects to be ready for opening day. The first intrasquad game of camp is scheduled for 11:45 a.m. (PST) Friday, and will likely go nine innings. Pitching coach Carl Willis will come up with the pitching schedule for the game today.
BLOG: Get more news online from staff writer Larry LaRue at blog.thenewstribune.com/mariners