A player who becomes a member of the New York Yankees doesn't really become a member of the New York Yankees right away.
No sir. Becoming a Yankee isn't a simple matter of putting on pinstripes. It's something that you have to earn.
So says the peanut gallery, anyway. For good or ill.
If Ichiro Suzuki wasn't already a Yankee before, he certainly is now. He had by far his finest day as a Yankee on Wednesday, going a combined 7-for-8 in the Yankees' doubleheader sweep of the Toronto Blue Jays. He also made a terrific catch in the first game, and he became the first Yankee with four hits and four stolen bases in a game since Rickey Henderson in 1988 in the second game.
If ever there was a textbook example of a "Yankee Moment," we saw one on Wednesday when Ichiro went to work.
Now that Ichiro's Yankee Moment is in the books, good things are sure to follow. Here's a look at a few reasons why his big day will lead to a big finish for the Yankees.
Note: Stats come from Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
Ichiro entered Wednesday's action with respectable numbers as a Yankee. In 51 games, he was hitting a solid .288/.311/.404. If you're scoring at home, that's a .714 OPS.
Ichiro, however, was in something of a minor funk at the start of the day on Wednesday. Over his previous 24 games, he was hitting .250/.273/.281. That's a .554 OPS, which isn't so shiny.
In the past couple weeks, Joe Girardi had taken to leaving Ichiro out of the starting lineup. He only started five of the last 12 games in which he played.
So, very quietly, Ichiro had become something of a forgotten man in The Bronx. Kind of strange when you think back to when he was first acquired by the Yankees. Nobody would shut up about him and the kind of role he was sure to play in pinstripes.
As you've no doubt noticed by now, Ichiro is front and center again. Everyone is singing his praises.
That's all well and good from a PR perspective, but what's really important here is that Ichiro has proved all over again that he can still hit. It's a good bet that more starts will be coming his way, and he'll hopefully be able to keep the hits coming in the final two weeks of the regular season.
Of course, it will take more than just hits for Ichiro to help the Yankees finish strong. He'll have to do something else that he did a lot of on Wednesday.
We all know the story when it comes to the Yankees offense. It's certainly powerful, but Yankees hitters aren't very good at hitting with runners in scoring position, and the lineup as a whole lacks versatility. The Yankees can't create a run when they need one in a pinch.
...Or can they?
They just might be able to now after seeing what Ichiro was able to do in Wednesday's nightcap. He stole four bases, all between the sixth and eighth innings.
To put this in perspective, Ichiro has just 25 stolen bases all season. That means 16 percent of his steals this season came in a span of three innings on Wednesday night.
Granted, much of the responsibility for Ichiro's four stolen bases lies with the Blue Jays, specifically Ricky Romero and J.P. Arencibia and Brandon Lyon and Jeff Mathis. It suffices to say that they should have been watching Ichiro a little more closely.
But the old guy deserves plenty of credit. He's not as spry as he once was, but he can still move pretty well on the basepaths. And right about now, the Yankees have to be wondering where his speed has been all their lives.
With Brett Gardner out of the picture, the Yankees have been without an elite stolen base threat for virtually the entire season. The fact that Alex Rodriguez is leading the team with 13 stolen bases says a lot about how one-dimensional their offense has been, and the fact that Ichiro now ranks just behind him on the team with 10 stolen bases says a little bit more.
What makes Ichiro stand out is that he has a long track record of being an above-average base-stealer. The Yankees haven't really put what's left of his speed to good use, but they may do so now after seeing him run wild on Wednesday.
Their offense could certainly use the extra wrinkle. And if Joe Girardi wants to, he can even push the envelope a little further.
For the most part, Ichiro has been stationed at the bottom of the Yankees' batting order. He's spent most of his time in the No. 8 hole, only occasionally foraying into other areas of the lineup.
Things have been a little different recently. Ichiro has hit leadoff in two of the last four games in which he's appeared, including the first game of Wednesday's doubleheader.
Hitting Ichiro leadoff in the first game on Wednesday worked to perfection. In addition to collecting three hits, he scored two of the Yankees' four runs. Since they only won by two runs at 4-2, you might say he was the difference in the game.
All signs point towards Ichiro not getting too comfortable hitting leadoff for the Yankees. That's been Derek Jeter's job this season, and he's handled it very, very well. He's a .321/.367/.442 hitter when he hits leadoff.
But maybe, just maybe, we'll see Girardi experiment with lineups that feature Ichiro in the leadoff spot and Jeter in the No. 2 hole, as he did on Saturday for the Yankees' game against the Tampa Bay Rays.
Having Ichiro and Jeter at the top of the lineup would effectively allow Girardi to toy around with a classic one-two combination. Ichiro is a contact hitter who can be put in motion on the basepaths, and Jeter is a good contact hitter in his own right who specializes in hitting the ball the other way.
The Yankees haven't had a dynamic such as this at the top of their lineup this season. Jeter can still hit, but he can't run liked he used to. The No. 2 spot in the Yankees lineup, meanwhile, has produced 173 strikeouts this season, by far the most of any one spot in the lineup this season (thanks a lot, Curtis Granderson).
Girardi hasn't given any indication that he's ready to make such a major switch, but it can't be ruled out completely for two reasons.
One is because the Yankees offense, which is hitting just .237 this month, could use a boost. The other has to do with the competition the Yankees are set to face.
Ichiro likes hitting against the Blue Jays. In 11 games against them this season, he's hit .342/.359/.447 with six RBI.
Lucky for him, then, that the Yankees aren't finished with the Blue Jays just yet. Including Thursday night's game, the Yankees have five contests remaining against Toronto down the stretch.
The Yankees will finish up their regular season with a three-game series against the Red Sox, and they're another team that Ichiro has done well against this season. He may only be hitting .280 against Boston, but he collected seven hits in the first six games he played against the Red Sox as a member of the Yankees. He hit two homers in one game against them back on August 19.
Ichiro also has five stolen bases against the Red Sox this season, and the smart money is on him adding to that total in the final three games of the regular season. Per MLB.com, only five teams in baseball have allowed more stolen bases than Boston. The Red Sox still haven't solved their problem with stolen bases (or any of their problems, really).
With a total of eight games remaining against the Blue Jays and Red Sox, Ichiro is set up for a strong finish. They're two teams he's hit well this season, and he's done enough to prove that he can get the better of them on the basepaths as well.
He'll be a thorn in their sides once again. And judging from what they saw on Wednesday, Ichiro may do well enough to carry the Yankees on his back to the finish line.
Throughout all this, you may have gotten the notion in your head that I'm completely overstating Ichiro's importance to the Yankees. One great game doesn't make him Derek Jeter, right?
Actually, you'd be surprised.
In the 24 games in which Ichiro was struggling to the tune of a .250/.273/.281 triple-slash line, the Yankees went 11-13. He wasn't solely responsible for the team's struggles, but his own struggles certainly weren't helping.
In the first 27 games Ichiro played with the Yankees, however, his good hitting coincided with generally good play on the part of the team as a whole. He was a .315 hitter with an .826 OPS through his first 27 games with the Yankees, and in those games, they compiled a record of 15-12.
It makes sense if you think about it. Ichiro solidified the bottom of the Yankees lineup when he came over from Seattle, and he also gave the team a shot in the arm. In the early days of his Yankees career, the trade that landed him in pinstripes looked like an absolute steal.
The shine wore off as the weeks went along, but it's back now. All of the positive energy that surrounded the Yankees during Ichiro's first few weeks with the team has come rushing back. To make matters even better for the team, Ichiro's return to form on Wednesday happened to coincide with Andy Pettitte's return to the mound.
The Yankees still have their work cut out for them in regards to winning the AL East, but Pettitte's return and Ichiro's return to form mean they're running out of excuses to fall short of the playoffs altogether in the end.
They're not as strong as they'd like to be, but they're strong enough to get the job done.
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