03/30/09 7:57 PM ET
Mariners bat Ichiro third as experiment
Regular leadoff man dropped in lineup for one-game test
By Jim Street / MLB.com
Batting third for the Mariners in their Cactus League road game against the Brewers was Ichiro Suzuki.Say what? Manager Don Wakamatsu has experimented with various lineups this spring, and he'll fiddle with the lineup some more during the final week. "The whole method to the madness this spring," Wakamatsu explained, "is we're trying to prepare guys for whatever we might need to do as a team during the season. This has more to do with giving us options. "We don't want to all of a sudden shock people down the road by putting them somewhere they haven't been. Yeah, [batting Ichiro third during the regular season] is a possibility, but in general, he's our leadoff hitter." The experiment nearly didn't go off as planned. "He was feeling a little light-headed, nothing serious," Wakamatsu said after the Mariners' 9-7 loss to the Brewers in Phoenix. "We were talking about maybe not starting him, but he felt good enough to have two at-bats and then we got him out of there. We're going to give him a day off [on Tuesday]." Ichiro went 1-for-2 in the game. There will be reasons for players to miss games during the 162-game grind and when the usual third-place hitters are not available, Wakamatsu must find someone else to plug into that important lineup spot. And Spring Training is the best time to experiment. "We switched the lineup a little bit [on Sunday] and we'll continue to do it until we get through Vegas," he said. The Mariners have three more games in the Peoria area before packing up and heading to Las Vegas for practice games against the Rockies on Friday night and Saturday afternoon. The regular season begins next Monday night against the Twins in Minneapolis. Ichiro will be in his usual leadoff spot. "This will be the only time [between now and the opener] that Ichiro will bat third," Wakamatsu said. Ken Griffey Jr. has been lobbying hard to bat leadoff, but that's not likely. "I told him it depends on the size of the check," Wakamatsu joked. Ichiro has limited experience batting third. Of his 1,264 Major League starts, only 13 of them were in the three hole -- three times in 2002 and 10 times in '04. The last time he did not bat leadoff in a regular-season game was June 23, 2004, against the Rangers. Wakamatsu said he approached Ichiro a couple of days ago with the idea and received a favorable response. "He's been outstanding, coming in here and saying, 'Whatever you need me to do to help this ballclub.' It has been off the chart," Wakamatsu said. "I'm trying to take the ego out of it with a lot of these guys and say, 'Hey, whatever we feel gives us our best opportunity to win, we're going to do that,' and he's been outstanding with that. "Do I foresee him as the third-place hitter? No. But it gives me another viable option if I go with more of a run-and-gun offense. It's not about Ichiro coming in and hitting 40 home runs. I'm smart enough to know that I need him to be right mentally, and we don't go off the deep end where all of sudden it's messing with the routine that he has been awfully successful with." Batting leadoff for virtually his entire MLB career has worked rather well. Ichiro has accumulated at least 200 hits and scored 100 runs in eight seasons, matching a modern-day record previously held alone by Lou Gehrig. Ichiro and Willie Keeler (1894-1901) are the only players to accomplish the feat in eight consecutive seasons. Ichiro has hit 73 home runs in his career, which is not a lot, but has said in the past that he could probably could hit at least 30 home runs if he really tried, but his batting average would suffer. Griffey is expected to bat third practically every game he plays, but on the days he rests, either Adrian Beltre or Mike Sweeney most likely would be in that spot. So who bats leadoff when Ichiro doesn't? "Endy [Chavez] would be there if Ichiro's not hitting there," Wakamatsu said. "Guys like [Yuniesky] Betancourt, [Jose] Lopez, [Franklin] Gutierrez, those type of guys would move around in the lineup a little bit depending on who we're facing matchup-wise and depending how a guy's playing. "As we go forward, I do like a little bit more versatility and find out where I can hit-and-run guys, where we can bunt back-to-back, where we can steal. I don't have the answer to that yet." But Wakamatsu is doing what he can to find out. "We'll juggle things, not on a personal basis, but more on a team concept," he said.
Jim Street is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.