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Heavens align for leading man Ichiro

by Kaz Nagatsuka

LOS ANGELES — A star actor always draws the spotlight in the end.

When Ichiro Suzuki hit the game-winning RBI single with two outs in the top of the 10th inning, it was almost fate rather than luck or coincidence.

Ichiro had been in a desperate slump throughout the World Baseball Classic, but at that particular at-bat, he seemed finally to find his usual swing.

Ichiro kept waiting for the money ball — one that he could hit just right — fouling pitcher Lin Chang Yong’s throws.

And then he finally got the money. Lin lost patience and threw a gopher sinker right in the middle of the zone, and Ichiro smacked it into the center field to drive home two men.

“I thought over so many things,” Ichiro jokingly said, asked if his brain was blank at the plate. “I wish I could go empty-minded, but I thought of things like, ‘if I hit in this situation, I have something or the television ratings go up.’

“And I actually hit it. I felt like I overcame a bump.”

After Daisuke Matsuzaka held the dangerous Cuban team in the second round, Ichiro said that the right-handed pitcher had something.

We think Ichiro has something too.

But it was even tougher for the Seattle Mariners outfielder, who has hit more than 200 hits a season for eight consecutive seasons.

Ichiro struggled to find his form and rhythm, and failed to do what he was expected to do as the Japanese team’s leadoff man — get on base.

Ichiro rarely gets hot during spring training in March, but still his slump seemed serious and became more conspicuous as the team kept winning and advanced to the later rounds.

“I learned that you can’t raise your performance under massive pressure,” Ichiro said. “But me personally, it was tougher than I expected.”

Ichiro entered the final game against South Korea with only a .167 batting average, but raised it to .273 with a 4-for-6 performance on Monday.

And his final at-bat of this WBC proved who Ichiro really is in front of a big crowd at Dodger Stadium.

Finally, asked if he wants to play in the next WBC, happy-mode Ichiro responded: “That’s an excessive question,” the 35-year-old said smiling. “In four years, I don’t even know if I’ll be alive.”