Franklin Gutierrez enjoyed the game of his 33-year-old life Friday night in Boston. The Mariners right fielder hit two homers and a bases-clearing double, which missed clearing the Fenway Park fence by the length of a cheap cigar. He drove in six runs.
Such a performance usually is worthy of American League player of the week honors, except Gutierrez didn’t even rank as AL player of the night. That distinction belonged to the Blue Jays’ Michael Saunders, who connected for three homers and drove in eight at Baltimore.
For parts of four seasons between 2009 and 2012, Gutierrez and Saunders were Mariners teammates of Ichiro Suzuki, forming an outfield trio with the potential to be baseball’s best. Gutierrez, in center, and Ichiro, in right, wore the gold gloves. Saunders wasn’t as polished, but he could run and bash.
So what did the Mariners reap from a dream outfield boasting a human hitting machine with a rocket arm, a center fielder nicknamed “Death to Flying Things” and a 6-foot-4 left fielder regarded as a superior all-around athlete?
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Not much. The timing never clicked with biological clocks that were out of sync.
Saunders was regarded as a 22-year-old project with a loopy swing when he made his big-league debut in the summer of 2009. Ichiro was 35, approaching the decline phase of a Hall of Fame career. Saunders had miles to go to reach his prime; Ichiro’s prime was behind him.
Meanwhile, Gutierrez, who achieved career-high numbers that season in games played (153), batting average (.283), home runs (18) and RBIs (70) appeared destined to anchor the Seattle outfield for, oh, the next decade or so. The Mariners rewarded him with a four-year, $19 million contract.
Gutierrez’s production would take a dramatic dip in 2010, his last season as a full-time player. A mysterious stomach ailment, initially identified as gastritis, was the first sign of trouble, and there was lots of trouble: Disabled list designations because of a strained left oblique (2011), a partial tear of his right pectoral muscle and a subsequent concussion (2012), followed by a strained right hamstring (2013).
Gutierrez’s stomach problems became so severe that he sat out 2014 on the restricted list. By the time he returned to the Mariners as a minor-league free agent, Saunders was in Toronto, which acquired him in a trade that had the look of a divorce.
Saunders’ injury history — a bum shoulder, a strained oblique, a bad back — found former Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik suggesting the outfielder’s adherence to winter conditioning was somewhat short of zealous. A ploy to motivate a player who had yet to realize his abundant natural talent, surely, but Saunders interpreted the remarks as an insult, and can you blame him?
In any case, the 2014 deal that sent a .231 career hitter to Toronto, in exchange for serviceable starting pitcher J.A. Happ, is not recalled as one of the many wrong moves Zduriencik arranged. A year after Saunders tripped over a sprinkler head during spring training and tore up his knee — an injury that limited his 2015 season to nine games — the Blue Jays came within a few minutes of trading the hard-luck outfielder to the Angels.
But the talks stalled, Saunders stayed put, and at the age of 29, he’s finally resembling the force the Mariners once envisioned.
“He’s having a hell of a year for us,” Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said Friday, after Saunders fattened his season numbers to a .314 batting average, 15 homers and 32 RBIs. “He’s using the whole field. He’s not just hitting homers to the pull side. He’s driving the ball the other way. Just a great effort by him.”
Should Saunders be invited to his first All-Star Game, he might reconnect with Ichiro. Part-time outfielders who have yet to hit a homer, or drive in 10 runs, aren’t obvious candidates to participate in the Midsummer Classic, but Ichiro, who’s always followed a different drum beat, qualifies as an exception.
The single he delivered in one plate appearance for the Marlins on Friday raised his batting average to .354, and left him with 2,980 hits in the Western Hemisphere. Combined with his 1,278 hits in Japan’s Pacific League, it added up to 4,258 career hits — two more than Pete Rose’s major league record of 4,256.
Rose doesn’t regard hits accumulated in Japan as equal to hits accumulated in the bigs, and he’s got a point. Japan’s Pacific League is tantamount to American baseball’s Triple A, where some kids are going places and some veterans are returning from places.
Ichiro’s “record” is not a record, but rather a number reflecting the lifetime achievements of the first position player from a professional league in the Far East to prove he could cut it with the best of the best in the West.
That he’s still capable of applying a solid swing on 98 mph pitches, at the age of 42, is the stuff of an uplifting story. But then, so is the story of Saunders, the injury-prone outfielder whose freak accident preceded a freakish comeback season.
The saga of Gutierrez might be the most inspiring of all. Out of the game two years ago — his baseball life doomed, and his real life in peril — he’s returned as a right-handed platoon hitter who crushes any pitch a lefty leaves over the plate.
From left to right — Saunders, Gutierrez, Ichiro — Seattle once had the pieces in place for an outfield of the ages, an outfield occupied by players whose skills were matched by their resilience.
An outfield, in the true-to-the-blue tradition of the Mariners, that wasn’t meant to be.