Ichiro Suzuki in perpetual motionVeteran OF flexible in more ways than one; he once pitched in a game
An interview with Suzuki can be an interesting experience. He might suddenly mention how he once pitched in a professional game in Japan 17 years ago, which is the curveball he tossed at me. We'll cover that compelling tidbit later, but Suzuki can be intriguing because he is in perpetual motion. He did a lengthy interview while doing a series of stretching experiences on the clubhouse carpet last October.
On this recent morning, Suzuki was sitting in a folding chair. But, as the conversation continued, he maneuvered his body so that his feet were planted on the seat and he was crouching like a catcher in the chair. Not only was Suzuki flexible enough to do this, and do it as easily as he snapped his fingers, he appeared quite comfortable.
When I asked Suzuki his preference in the Yankees' lineup, he smiled and said he would be satisfied in any spot "as long as it's not tenth." Before the Yankees acquired Suzuki from the Seattle Mariners last July, they told him he would have to be willing to hit in the bottom of the order and to play anywhere in the outfield. He accepted those parameters and hit .322 in 67 games.
"Last year, I came over and hit in many different spots in the lineup," Suzuki said. "That was a good experience. I wanted to be ready for anything. Not just in the lineup, but also in left field, center field or right field. I want to be prepared and do well."
While Suzuki has hit third several times this spring, manager Joe Girardi isn't expected to use him there this season. I thought the Yankees might use Brett Gardner, Derek Jeter and Suzuki as their first three batters and put Robinson Cano in the fourth spot, especially because the Yankees don't have an obvious cleanup batter. But Girardi dismissed that possibility. Girardi has hit Suzuki third in Florida as a way to make sure Suzuki gets enough at-bats. Cano is the best choice to hit third, but he's also the best candidate to hit fourth.
Wherever Cano hits, he will be the most lethal hitter in a revamped and leaner lineup. The Yankees belted 245 homers last season, but Cashman and Girardi have acknowledged that the 2013 Yankees will not have as much power. Of the Yankees' 10 leading home run hitters from 2012, eight won't be with them at the start of the season because they are playing elsewhere or they are injured. The Yankees won't be able to rely on the long ball to rescue them and will need to be a more creative offensive team.
Since Suzuki was with the Yankees for less than half a season and Gardner only had 31 at-bats last season, the Yankees are hoping those two players can combine to give their offense a boost. Home runs can cure a lot of headaches. Without as much power, the Yankees hope Suzuki and Gardner can combine to score 200 runs, steal 90 bases and create some headaches for opposing teams.
"Home runs can change the momentum of the game," Suzuki said. "The Yankees had a team that did that and this franchise has been known for that. But you don't have to win games by 10 runs. You can win by one run. Baseball is so deep. There are many different ways to score runs."
And there are different ways to get outs, too. Seventeen years ago, that included using Suzuki as a pitcher. As Suzuki stressed how he would play any outfield spot for the Yankees, he added, "I played third base and pitched in Japan." I thought Suzuki was being playful about the pitching part, but he was serious. In fact, the evidence is on YouTube.
In the 1996 Japanese League All-Star Game, Suzuki was brought in to face Hideki Matsui and try to secure the final out for the Pacific League. As the thin-as-a-foul-pole Suzuki warmed up, he threw 90 mile per hour fastballs. Matsui watched from the on-deck circle, seemingly amused. But the manager of Matusi's Central League team wasn't amused. He thought that having Suzuki, an outfielder, pitch to Matsui was disrespectful to the game. So he inserted Shingo Takatsu, a pitcher, as a pinch-hitter for Matsui. Suzuki explained what happened next.
"One batter, groundout to shortstop, game over," he said.
Interview over, too. We weren't going to top that story.