MIAMI — Ichiro Suzuki swung, exactly as the man on the mound had hoped when he snapped off the curveball, breaking down and running away, headed for a crash landing in the dirt. The ball had arrived so low that the catcher had turned his mitt — webbing facing down — to pinch the ball between the leather and the ground.
Contact appeared impossible. And from the mound, Jerry Blevins enjoyed a moment of satisfaction. It would be fleeting.
In his 10th season in the big leagues, Blevins faced 522 different batters before Saturday night, though none more than Ichiro. In their 24 confrontations — most when Ichiro played for the Mariners and Blevins with the Athletics — he learned a humbling reality about facing greatness.
“When you feel like you beat him and he gets on base, it’s extra frustrating,” said Blevins, who remembered the way Ichiro struck that curveball just before it hit the ground, poking it up the middle for an RBI single. “He’s haunted me my whole career.”
Blevins, now a lefthanded specialist for the Mets, is hardly the only one. There is a reason that Ichiro entered action Saturday night just four hits shy of the 3,000-hit club.
“He’s got the best hand-eye coordination that I’ve seen,” said Blevins, whose job as a specialist has forced him to take on the likes of Bryce Harper, David Ortiz and Ken Griffey Jr. “Whenever anybody has asked me who’s the best hitter you’ve faced, that’s an easy answer for me: It’s Ichiro.”
At 42, as a fourth outfielder with the surprising Marlins, he came in hitting .341 in a late-career revival that has brought him to the brink of history.
“The amount of time and work that he puts in, it’s relentless,” said Mets hitting coach Kevin Long, who worked with Ichiro when both were with the Yankees. “The guy, he’s got a work ethic and a desire that I’ve never seen from anybody. That’s saying a lot. It’s continuous, it’s daily, it’s routine oriented.”
Long’s charges have included Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and David Wright, though it is Ichiro who possessed the strongest work ethic, one that became legendary on both sides of the Pacific.
Even now, Ichiro remains married to his routine, one that involves elaborate stretching exercises. His belongings are spread over three lockers in the Marlins clubhouse. Everything has a place, from the wrist bands in their individual wrappings, to his bats, which he treats like delicate instruments. His black Mizunos are housed in specially made hard-shell cases.
After his arrival in the Marlins clubhouse Saturday, it wouldn’t be long before he opened one of those cases, carefully selected a bat, and disappeared into the batting cage. He worked as if he were in the starting lineup, even though he was not.
“His cage work, if he takes 75 swings, 75 are right on the money,” said Long, who estimated half of Ichiro’s batting practice swings resulted in homers. “He doesn’t miss. That’s where you know he’s far and above everyone else. It’s on the barrel and it’s hit hard.”
Ichiro has famously refused to take that power swing into games, preferring to slice singles all over the field with a distinctive swing that goes against conventional teaching. He moves toward the incoming pitch and makes hard contact — possible only because of his freakish body control.
“He does it his way and he’s had a great career doing it,” Mets manager Terry Collins said. “I don’t think you can copy him.”
Mets veteran Bartolo Colon called Ichiro “one of the greatest hitters of my era.” He would know. In 19 big-league seasons, Colon has faced 1,226 different hitters, ranging from Kyle Schwarber to Eddie Murray.
But with 115 career plate appearances, no one has faced Colon more than Ichiro. It’s a fact that surprised the veteran pitcher, who commandeered an iPhone to double check the stat himself.
“Wait,” he said with a smile. “He’s hitting .300 against me?”
Indeed, Ichiro owns a .298 mark against Colon, who at 43, is the only active player in the major leagues who is older.
“It’s an honor to have the opportunity to compete against a future Hall of Famer,” Colon said. “He’s had a big impact on the game of baseball.”