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Vexing slump has Ichiro searching for answers

by Kaz Nagatsuka

There is no argument that Ichiro Suzuki will again be the star attraction for the Japanese team in its hunt for consecutive championships in the World Baseball Classic, but right now he isn’t even a supporting cast member.

Ichiro has not found his touch on his barrel since the national squad’s camp began in Miyazaki, going 3-for-23 in the six warmup games, which wrapped up on Sunday with a 2-1 victory over the defending Central League champion Yomiuri Giants at Tokyo Dome.

Entering the game with a .167 batting average, manager Tatsunori Hara gave Ichiro the chance to have a change of pace, putting him on the leadoff spot for the first time since the exhibitions started. But it didn’t help him do what everybody is expecting him to do — rack up hits.

Ichiro, a Seattle Mariners star who has collected at least 200 hits in each of his last eight seasons in the major leagues, was not able to live up to his reputation. He went 0-for-5, grounding out three times on Sunday.

The 35-year-old outfielder, who hit in the No. 3 spot in the previous five games, went hitless for the second straight day. He lowered his average to .130, the lowest among the members who played regularly, and left skipper Hara and the loyal fans who have packed the stadiums every game feeling the jitters.

Knowing it was just an exhibition and he has time to adjust his issues, Ichiro still had room to smile when he walked through the mixed zone after the game and jokingly responded to reporters’ questions by saying, “I can’t hear.”

Yet soon the smile left his features and he laid bare his thoughts on the slump.

“I’m vexed that I’ve not come up with (positive) outcomes,” Ichiro said. “I think that way every time, but especially in tense games like this I think so indeed.”

In his defense, there is no space for Ichiro to be able to breathe normally once he gets in the stadium and steps onto the field.

That is because he is arguably the team’s biggest superstar and is considered to be one that carried Oh Japan to the WBC title three years ago, even on the all-star squad.

It can easily be seen in the ballpark, or on television. Even during fielding practice before games, he draws everybody’s attention by catching fly balls or making his signature laser-beam throws. Of course once a game begins and he steps up to the plate, he is the focus of thousands of flashing cameras.

And opposing teams and pitchers put extra effort and focus into holding the MLB All-Star as well.

So, as long as he wears the Japan uniform, he can’t escape the spotlight and still has to manage to put up an “Ichiro-like” performance for the audience.

“It is what baseball is about,” Ichiro said bluntly. “They come at you hard, and you still have to hit well. Otherwise, you can’t get over the bumps.”

As for the flashing cameras, he said he really appreciates the support of the fans.

“It’s a special thing. I rarely play in Japan, but (the fans) come out even for the workouts. That’s why I’m vexed.”

But the 17-year pro, who commented that he can see the balls but his body doesn’t react in the right way, doesn’t get frustrated despite being off form.

In a sense, the slow start is almost a usual thing for Ichiro before he finally ignites fire on his bat when he really needs it.

In 2005, Ichiro suffered through a 24 at-bat hitless streak during the spring, and last spring he didn’t have any hits from the beginning of spring training for 26 at-bats. But in both years, he retained an above-.300 average and finished with 200 hits.

And in the last Classic, he went only 4-for-16 (.250) in the four pre-tourney warmup games, and was 3-for-13 (.231) before showing his real ability from the second round on (going 4-for-11 in Round 2 and 5-for-9 in the semifinal and final).

Ichiro said that he wanted to bring his condition to at least 60 to 70 percent during the exhibitions. That means that his current shape isn’t even there.

“Time doesn’t stop clicking for us,” he said. “So I’ll just have to go as it is (to enter the first round).”