Two days to the hour after it was learned that Ichiro Suzuki was jumping from the Good Ship Lollipop to the Evil Empire, Safeco Field was back to something resembling normal Wednesday afternoon.
The home team scored a couple of first-inning runs, combining two singles with two walks, and then stopped to admire its superb artwork. The New York Yankees – the other home team – stayed patient until the top of the eighth, when it rallied to win the game that decided the series.
And while Ichiro’s trade to the Yankees remained a prevalent theme for those who brought home-made posters to the park, the novelty of Ichiro approaching the batter’s box from the visitors’ dugout seemed to wear off during the long, uninteresting afternoon.
In fact, by the time Ichiro was announced as the Yankees’ ninth hitter of the eighth inning, there was no reaction from a crowd that had given him a standing ovation when he led off the top of the first.
Is it conceivable that Wednesday was Ichiro’s final career appearance in Safeco Field?
He’ll be 39 next season, owner of a market value the Yankees established to be two 25-year old pitching prospects with no conspicuous upside. We know better than to apply conventional thinking to Ichiro, but there’s a chance – and it’s more than slight – that the out he made on an infield grounder was his last at-bat in Seattle.
After he went 1-for-5, Ichiro was asked if he considered the game a farewell performance for Mariners fans.
“For this year,” he said.
But Ichiro’s future is not the Mariners’ concern anymore. The Mariners’ concern is a future without Ichiro.
“We’re moving forward, especially with those guys leaving here,” Mariners manager Eric Wedge said after the Yankees’ 5-2 victory. “Now the focus is on the young kids playing baseball and getting better.”
The beauty of the Ichiro trade was how it liberated the front office from making a long-term commitment to a piece that didn’t fit in its rebuilding plans. But now that the Ichiro dilemma has been solved, the challenge will be to determine the kids who belong from the kids who don’t.
Exasperating the challenge is the way the kids seem to be moving in different directions. There were six players in Wedge’s lineup who qualified as “young” – no older than 26 – and they could be lumped into groups of two: The good, the bad, and the unknown.
The good? Outfielder Michael Saunders and third baseman Kyle Seager.
Saunders, who appears comfortable with his promotion to the No. 2 spot in the batting order, got things started in the first with an opposite-field base hit to left field. Between his offense and his defense and his baserunning, Saunders has been consistently competent and occasionally outstanding.
Seager, meanwhile, might be the Mariners’ most valuable position player. His 10-pitch at-bat against Yankees starter Ivan Nova, with the bases loaded, concluded with a walk that drove in a run – Seager’s 60th RBI of the season.
Third basemen capable of that kind of production are not common. (Ask the Yankees, who are looking for somebody to replace injured third baseman Alex Rodriguez.) Seager’s .240 batting average is mediocre, but he’s working counts deep and taking good quality swings, and his defense has been stellar.
The bad? Second baseman Dustin Ackley and right fielder Carlos Peguero.
Ackley’s fundamentally pure swing was supposed to prevent him from slumps, but another 0-for-4 on Wednesday left him 0-for-10 for the series, and it gets worse: Over the past seven games, he’s 1-for-29. Because the leadoff role seemed to agree with him in the spring, he was back in that role against the Yankees. But he isn’t producing.
Neither is Peguero, who swings a stick as if he’s competing for a stuffed-animal prize at the county fair. Peguero hit 18 home runs with the Rainiers, and was a worthy call-up on July 5. But he’s having as much difficulty adjusting to major-league pitching as he did last season.
An immediate beneficiary of the Ichiro trade, Peguero was Wedge’s first choice to play right field. He hasn’t embarrassed himself out there, but at some point he must show the ability to connect on pitches that aren’t fastballs into his wheelhouse.
The unknown? Catcher/designated hitter Jesus Montero and first baseman Mike Carp.
Montero is hit or miss. One day he looks like the prize general manager Jack Zduriencik pried from the Yankees last winter. The next day he looks dazed and confused. Wednesday was one of those dazed-and-confused days for Montero, who struck out three times and took the most clumsy single swing of the game. On the bright side, this is a kid who is really a kid: just 22. It’s easy to forget that.
Finally, there’s Carp, whose “breakthrough” season of 2011 found him ranked among the top rookies in the history of the franchise. Last September, at Minnesota, Carp had five hits in a game. This year, Carp has 13 hits. Total. A right shoulder injury sustained during the season-opening series in Japan proved ominous; he’s still grasping to get back on track.
But he didn’t hit during his rehab assignment in Tacoma, and he isn’t hitting in Seattle, and when do Zduriencik and Wedge decide they’ve seen enough?
There are 62 games to go on the Mariners’ schedule. Figure them as an audition for the likes of Peguero, Carp and even Ackley.
As for Ichiro? His clock is ticking, and we may have seen the last of him at Safeco Field. But the clock also is ticking on the young players he left firstname.lastname@example.org