Ichiro aiming for efficiency -- and wins

Ichiro aiming for efficiency -- and wins

TUCSON, Ariz. -- Ichiro Suzuki has learned over the years not to read too much into March statistics.

While most players would be thrilled with a .299 career batting average during any month of the season, April happens to be the only month Ichiro hits below .300 more times than not.

And so, hot spring or not, he is careful not to jump to conclusions.

"There have been times in the past where, in Spring Training, I felt ready to go and when the regular season started, I wasn't ready," he said. "So I decided never to use Spring Training as a gauge for the season."

But as sure as the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, the Mariners center fielder will hit well over .300 during any part of the baseball season. And this spring is no different.

With less than two weeks remaining before Ichiro begins his seventh -- and possibly final -- season with the Mariners, the hits keep coming in the desert. He went into Wednesday's wind-blown Cactus League game against the Rockies batting .390 (16-for-41) and extended his hitting streak to 10 games with a sixth-inning double.

That's just Ichiro being Ichiro. But he says there's something different about this Mariners camp.

"There is a change in style, and I have been enjoying that," he said though his interpreter. "A lot of the dead time has been taken away, giving me more time to concentrate efficiently."

He explained that, in previous camps, specifically during the morning practices, he would spend upwards of 45 minutes in the outfield shagging fly balls, basically battling boredom.

But this spring, Ichiro said standing around has been reduced significantly.

"For me, that was just useless time," he said of the 45-minute shag time. "We would just stand around talking to each other. Now, the shagging time is about 15 minutes, at the most, and I can use that extra time to work on my defense. I can use the time in a more efficient manner.

"I had come to realize how bad useless time is."

Ichiro's two-thumbs-up critique of camp was good news for manager Mike Hargrove and hitting coach Jeff Pentland.

"If he likes it, that's a positive," Pentland said. "Ich has his own way of doing things. He is very methodical in what he does, very routine-oriented. Our method of operation is to keep the position players busy."

But there's always some down time involved.

"A lot of what batting practice is all about is standing around," Hargrove said, "but it's good to know we've been able to accomplish our goal of keeping the players busy."

"I'm glad Ichiro appreciates our approach," Pentland added.

The Mariners' approach, and subsequent success -- or failure -- this season looms large in Ichiro's future with the organization.

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Since joining the Mariners prior to the 2001 season, Ichiro has been an All-Star and Gold Glove Award winner every season, is the first player in MLB history to accumulate at least 200 hits in his first three seasons -- let alone the six-year streak he currently is on -- has participated in the AL playoffs twice, won the AL Most Valuable Player and Rookie of the Year Award in the same season, and broke an 84-year-old hit record.

He is also determined to play well into October -- so determined, in fact, that Ichiro put the organization on alert when he reported to Spring Training last month.

"I have played 15 years of professional baseball, including Japan, and I have never filed for free agency," he told reporters on Feb. 20, "so, I've never had the choice to choose for myself which road I want to take. I've never had to do that in the past. So, if you ask me 'Is it possible that I might go to free agency?' I would say 'Yes, there's a possibility.'

"But if you ask me what are my feelings toward it, at this point I cannot express it. I am not even sure myself. But what I can say is my mind is full of having the best season possible."

The four-year, $44 million contract extension he signed prior to the 2004 season expires at the end of this season and there has been no indication that Ichiro's contract status will change prior to the regular-season opener.

The Mariners have a standing policy about not discussing contracts with current players, though general manager Bill Bavasi has said that getting a deal done with Ichiro was a "top priority."

Ichiro apparently likes what he has seen so far and that's a good sign for the organization and his fans.

Jim Street is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.