BY John Hickey 07:45PM 05/29/2011

Hickey: Top of the order is in the dumps

Ichiro’s past success against Yankees ace C.C. Sabathia doesn’t translate into the hit the Mariners needed Sunday. May continues to be a struggle for Ichiro and Chone Figgins.

Ichiro is enduring the worst batting month of his Major League career. / Getty Images

The show the Mariners are putting on right now is a mirage.

The question is what do you consider to be the mirage?

Is it a mirage to see the Mariners contenders in the American League West?

Or is it a mirage to see Ichiro Suzuki and Chone Figgins so out of sorts at the top of the lineup?

The No. 1 and No. 2 hitters in the Seattle lineup are wandering through a desert, parched beyond belief for hits, not knowing when and where they might find an oasis. If they can, the Mariners’ success need not be a mirage. If they can’t, Seattle is going to have a tough time keeping up its recent torrid pace.

Ichiro went hitless in four at-bats Sunday in a 7-1 loss to the Yankees, leaving him with just five hits in his last 39 at-bats. Things are so off-kilter that shortstop Brendan Ryan, who was hitting .200 as recently as May 17, has shot past Ichiro to own the best batting average on the club. Ryan’s .277 tops Ichiro’s atypical .272.

Manager Eric Wedge said that as unusual as Ichiro’s stance and swing are, the club basically has to wait for Ichiro to sort things out on his own. Ichiro is, in a real sense, his own best batting coach.

Asked after Sunday’s loss if he was uncomfortable in the batter’s box, Ichiro said “That was a stupid question.”

Asked if his troubles were getting into his head, Ichiro didn’t need a lot of time to consider the question.

“I always have a lot of things in my head,” he said.

Asked then if he had a plan for getting out of the funk he is in, he said, “Tthat’s not something I can share with you.”

Bad as things are for Ichiro, Figgins’ plight is worse, because unlike the right fielder, the third baseman had a miserable April (.214) before his ugly May (.168) kicked in. With an 0-for-4 Sunday, Figgins has two hits in his last 36 at-bats. His average tumbled past .200, coming to rest at .193.

Sunday’s loss was the second in the last 11 games for the Mariners, who, for about 18 hours, were in second place in the American League West before Sunday’s loss.

How the Mariners won nine of 11 with so little contribution from the top of the order speaks wonders for the Seattle pitching and the resurgent bottom of the lineup. But in the grim light of day, it’s all but impossible to see Seattle winning consistently if the two men they count on to generate offensive opportunities aren’t up to the challenge.

Perhaps Ichiro’s fifth-inning at-bat Sunday breaks down his problems – and mirrors those of Figgins, too – as well as any.

Batting against C.C. Sabathia with the bases loaded, one out and Seattle trying to get into a game it trailed 7-0, Ichiro looked at a called strike to start the at-bat. It was the kind of pitch he might have jumped on if he were having a typical May – his career average for the month was .355 before this month’s .204 (20-for-98) – but he let it go.

Sabathia came back with a pitch almost on the inside corner, good enough to swing at if Ichiro wanted to. Again, he held off. Ball one.

The third Sabathia offering was the worst pitch of the at-bat, maybe a foot inside. Ichiro swung anyway. He wasn’t close to it. Strike two.

The fourth pitch showed just how befuddled Ichiro is these days. He took a half-swing at a borderline pitch, a cutter, tapped back to Sabathia. The lefty threw to the plate for the first out of a pitcher-to-catcher-to-first base double play, ending the inning.

Situations like that have been when Ichiro’s at his best. He came into Sunday a career .371 hitter against Sabathia. And after Sunday’s loss, he acknowledged his past success.

“But not always,” Ichiro said.

And certainly not Sunday.

Sabathia looked at that fifth-inning at-bat as the key moment of the game.

“There was still a lot of game left, so I was trying to get a double play and keep the damage to a minimum,” Sabathia said. “Ichiro has had pretty good numbers against me, but I didn’t want to let him hit a ball in the gap.”

Sabathia didn’t intend it as such, but he had some advice that could help both Ichiro and Figgins.

Asked about the confrontation with the Mariners in general and Ichiro specifically, the former Cy Young Award winner said he tries to put all extraneous issues out of his mind.

“I don’t think about it,” Sabathia said. “I don’t try to put any extra pressure on myself, so I’m able to go out try to pitch a good game every time out.”

Wedge hinted that both Ichiro and Figgins are putting extra pressure on themselves, and that may be part of the problem.

“I think both guys are pressing,’’ Wedge said before the game, “trying to do too much. You can’t try to get it all back in one game, or in one at-bat. What I don’t want to see is the same thing, over and over again. I want to see progress.”

But the same thing – in terms of routine groundouts – is what Wedge is seeing. Ichiro grounded out four times Sunday, Figgins once. In the nine games, 25 of Ichiro’s at-bats have been routine grounders, one of which was an infield hit. Over the same time frame, 17 of Figgins’ outs have been grounders.

“Ichiro has to work his way through this,” Wedge said. “He’s going through a tough stretch. Figgins is going through a tough stretch. Our job is to help them fight through it.

“There’s a long way to go – four months in a big league season. And they’ve got to fight through it. They have to make adjustments, mental or mechanical. There will always be somebody who’s struggling.”

Right now, those bodies are at the top of the Seattle lineup.

Twitter:@JHickey3


YourThoughts

  • Michael Kaiser

    For a variety of reasons, Figgins has been going through a “tough stretch” since he arrived in Seattle, and that does not even address his fielding, which if it was not for a very generous home-town scorekeeper would reflect the damage he also has done in the field.  It is getting time to seriously consider biting the bullet and seeing if we can at least get some minor league prospects for him.  And in the meantime move him to the nine spot, as Ichiro has no intention of moving down the order where he arguably has belonged for many, many years.

  • Fairmontdave

    Ichiro struggled until someone with a bat behind him hit, like maybe Brendan Ryan.  Duh.  Figgins will never emerge from the 8th slot, and may beat out Sanders for the 9th.  Remember last year when Figgins had a cardiac when Wakamatsu batted him 9th?  Now, he can’t field, ( now would be Sunday against Baltimore in the 8th inning).  When is it better to cut $25 million from your roster if you want to win?  Now?  Has anyone seen the way Luis Rodriguez can  drive the ball, something Chone can only dream about?