Suzuki grabs Orioles' attention

Rising Mariners star uses glove, bat skills to trip O's in opener

May 31, 2001|By Joe Strauss | By Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

SEATTLE — Late Orioles game: Last night's game between the Orioles and Mariners ended too late to be included in this edition. A complete report can be found in later editions or on the Internet at http://www.sunspot.net.

SEATTLE - Seattle Mariners right fielder Ichiro Suzuki owns the Far Eastern equivalent of Brady Anderson sideburns, seven batting titles and a hitting style unique to the American game. After his dazzling performance during Tuesday night's 3-2 win over the Orioles at Safeco Field, Suzuki also had earned a measure of respect rarely accorded any rival player at first sight.

Suzuki turned a potential Orioles win on its head with two hits, including a fifth-inning single off hard-luck Orioles starter Willis Roberts to break a 1-1 tie, and three acrobatic catches, including a sliding grab against Jerry Hairston to end the game.

"He knew he was going to make that catch. That's why he was able to slide for it," said Orioles bench coach Sam Perlozzo. "That's a very confident player. You have to be impressed."

Orioles manager Mike Hargrove is typically loathe to discuss an opposing player but relented after a game that punished his team despite a sound defensive performance wrapped around Roberts' first complete game.

Instead, the Mariners as constructed by former Orioles general manager Pat Gillick improved to 38-12 - the 10th-best start in major-league history. Entering play yesterday, they led the American League West by 14 games by packaging the charismatic Suzuki with the game's most balanced bullpen and possibly the AL's soundest starting rotation. For the 24-26 Orioles, the loss was a sobering start to a nine-game road trip against three of last season's playoff teams.

Many Orioles had not previously seen Safeco Field, the Mariners' 2-year-old state-of-the-art facility that features a retractable roof, railroad tracks behind the right-field bleachers and festive atmosphere.

None of the Orioles have won here. Tuesday's loss left the Orioles 0-8 at Safeco since the Mariners moved across the street from the warehouse-like Kingdome in the middle of the 1999 season. It is the Orioles' most futile run at any park since losing a franchise-record 14 straight to the Toronto Blue Jays at SkyDome from 1998-2000. Through Tuesday night, the Orioles had not scored more than four runs in a game at Safeco and had lost six times by three runs or fewer.

And, certainly, the Orioles hadn't seen anyone like the 5-foot-9, 160-pound Suzuki, a 27-year-old rookie likened to Cleveland Indians center fielder Kenny Lofton before his arrival from Japan last winter. Those comparisons are no longer made because Suzuki has established his own identity.

"He's a five-tool player," Hargrove said. "His power may be the one questionable tool he has, but he can hit a baseball a long way. He's the real deal."

If not for Suzuki, the Orioles might have ended their Safeco skid. However, every third inning, Suzuki punctured a would-be rally with his defensive flair.

Anderson threatened to break open a scoreless game in the third inning by pulling a fly ball down the right-field line. Had the ball dropped, Anderson likely would have broken Mariners starter Freddy Garcia's hitless game with a triple. Instead, Suzuki broke quickly and seemingly reached full stride by his second step. He went into a slide with his glove outstretched just before Anderson's ball would have hit the right-field stripe. His catch set off a tremor that wouldn't die for minutes.

"He plays right field, but he's a center fielder," said Anderson, who saw Suzuki play the position during a tour of Japan in 1996.

Dwarfed was the solid start by Roberts. His most serious mistake was shaking off catcher Brook Fordyce's call for a split-finger pitch against left fielder Mark McLemore in the third inning. Roberts insisted on throwing an inside fastball. Expecting the pitch, McLemore turned on it for a bases-empty home run that gave the Mariners a 1-0 lead.

Suzuki lined a one-out single to right field in the fifth inning to shatter a 1-1 game. Designated hitter Edgar Martinez followed two hitters later with another single that whizzed by first baseman David Segui for a 3-1 lead. From there, Suzuki's glove and the Mariners' bullpen took over.

In the sixth inning, Suzuki ranged into the sliver separating the foul line from Safeco's right-field stands to catch Mike Bordick's fly ball. Suzuki's second gem helped stymie a promising rally in which the Orioles pulled within 3-2 but stranded the tying run at second base.

Held to four hits by four pitchers, including the undefeated Garcia (5-0) and closer Kazuhiro Sasaki, the Orioles threatened constantly after the fourth inning.

With Delino DeShields perched at first base with two outs in the ninth, Hairston lobbed a fly ball into shallow right field. Suzuki appeared to be playing too deep but again compensated with a terrific jump. A crowd of 30,413 built to a crescendo when Suzuki ended the game with his sprawling play.

"He's the difference in the ballgame. The catch he made on Anderson's ball down the line and the catch he made on Hairston's ball, no other right fielder in the American League makes those plays. Maybe he makes one of them, but doesn't make both of them," Hargrove said.

"Each fly ball had a different characteristic and it's tough to say which one was the toughest, but I was most proud of the last fly ball because with that one I could finish the game," Suzuki said.

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