Ichiro Suzuki has no desire to hit anywhere in the lineup other than leadoff – for one thing, in his quest for 200 hits a year, he gets more at-bats there.
He is not opposed, however, to staying there and hitting like a cleanup man, which is precisely what he did Friday night when his two home runs pushed the Seattle Mariners past the Boston Red Sox, 5-4.
“It was a very important game against a very good team,” Ichiro said. “The way things have been going, it seemed like there were waves against us. This was an important victory.”
If it was, it was won as much by the bullpen as the home runs, in large part because that same bullpen has lost leads the offense had built over the previous 10 days.
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What Ichiro’s home runs did was bring the Mariners back from a 4-0 deficit, impressive enough.
What the Mariners haven’t done as much – and not at all in May – is take the lead, as they did in the sixth inning against Boston, and hold on to it. On their first game since pulling Brandon Morrow from the closer’s role, they were forced to do just that.
Starter Chris Jakubauskas was done after six, having pitched better than the numbers looked. Sean White worked the seventh inning. Mark Lowe came on for the eighth, and was obviously primed for the task.
On the pitch with which he struck out Jason Varitek in the eighth, Lowe hit 98 mph.
And then came the ninth inning.
In each of their previous two games, the Mariners lost on walk-off hits (a double Wednesday, a home run Thursday) on the final pitch – both times thrown by Morrow. Even always-find-the-positive manager Don Wakamatsu called those losses devastating.
What Wakamatsu did about them was make a quick change, if a temporary one, sending Morrow to middle relief. The closer will be determined on a game-by-game basis, and Friday it was David Aardsma, pitching for the third game in a row.
All the right-hander had to do was face the top of Boston’s lineup. He got Jacoby Ellsbury on a ground ball. He got Dustin Pedroia on a long fly ball, then gave up a single to J.D. Drew.
Aardsma ended it with a warning-track fly from Jason Bay, earning his fourth save of the season. And of his career.
“My heart was racing in the bullpen, because this was my old team, Boston,” Aardsma said. “Once I threw my first pitch, though, I was good. I thought (Bay) had just hit a fly ball, but then it kept going and going and going.
“I consider Brandon the closer. I’m just going to pitch when they tell me to pitch and not worry about it.”
From the outset, what Jakubauskas could have used was a little more luck.
When Boston went ahead in the first inning, for instance, Ellsbury’s leadoff double was scorched. But Drew’s RBI single? It was a shattered-bat bloop into shallow left-center field.
And, trailing 2-0 in the third inning, Jakubauskas came just-this-close to getting out of a bases loaded jam when he got a double play ground ball from Julio Lugo. It went to Adrian Beltre at third, who fired to Jose Lopez at second as Drew scored, but as Lopez tried to avoid a sliding Mike Lowell, his throw to first was low and wide.
Not only did that cost the Mariners the game-ending out, it cost them a second run when the throw rolled away from Branyan. By the time Branyan retrieved it, Boston was ahead, 4-0, as Bay scored.
The feel-good story of spring training, Jakubauskas pitched six innings, allowing only an infield single over the final three. It wasn’t until he had left the game that his luck changed for the better.
Bellarmine Prep graduate Jon Lester had shut out the Mariners through four innings before Ichiro homered to lead off the fifth.
In the sixth inning, one-out singles by Branyan and Kenji Johjima produced a threat, but Lester seemed to get out of it when Yuniesky Betancourt tapped a ball back to the mound.
Lester whirled to throw to second base, where Pedroia was waiting. Inexplicably, Lester didn’t throw, turning instead and throwing to first to get one out, not two. Big play?
Well, Franklin Gutierrez followed that play with a two-run single that cut the Sox lead to 4-3. And Ichiro brought that crowd to its feet with his second homer.
For Ichiro, it was his fourth home run of the season, the most by any Mariner not named Branyan. And it was the fourth time in his Seattle career he’d hit two homers in a game, although he hadn’t done it since July 30, 2005. Could he describe the two home runs?
“It was as you saw it,” he said.
That quote was out-done, perhaps, only by what Ken Griffey Jr. had to say about not playing in the win.
“A quality benching,” he said of his non-start. “That was the difference tonight.”