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Ichiro has been a perfect fit for Yankees

Ichiro Suzuki and Derek Jeter take batting practice

Ichiro Suzuki and Derek Jeter take batting practice during work out day at Yankee Stadium. (Oct. 5, 2012) Credit: Jim McIsaac

The chants came from the rightfield bleachers 11 years ago in a stadium that no longer stands. But the words remain fresh: "Sayonara Ichiro!''

"That was kind of a tough moment,'' Ichiro Suzuki said Friday through an interpreter.

Until now, those jeers provided the soundtrack to Ichiro's only taste of the playoffs, when his 116-win Mariners fell to the Yankees in the 2001 ALCS. He hit .421 in 10 playoff games, then waited more than a decade for his next chance.

That comes Sundayin the ALDS against the Orioles, with Ichiro wearing the uniform of the Yankees, the team that traded for him and watched him regain his old form down the stretch.

In acquiring the 38-year-old star, the Yankees simply wanted an upgrade over veteran outfielder Dewayne Wise. Despite having a front-line role with the Mariners, Ichiro agreed to the trade even if it meant the prospect of settling in as a role player with the Yankees. At the beginning, they sat him out against lefthanders. By the end, his name became a staple in the No. 2 spot in the lineup.

"He got so hot that it was almost impossible to take him out of the lineup,'' Yankees manager Joe Girardi said.

In 95 games with the last-place Mariners, Ichiro hit .261 and had an on-base percentage of .288. Since the trade, he is hitting .322 (73-for-227) with a .340 on-base percentage. In his last 16 games, he is batting .394 (28-for-71) with a .405 on-base percentage and .563 slugging percentage.

"Ichiro, what he's done is shown that he's still a great player and he can really impact the game,'' Girardi said. "He's excited to be here. He's having fun. You can see it every day.''

From the time of his arrival, Ichiro said he fit into the clubhouse, one stocked with fellow veteran players. He thrived on the expectations.

"What I've realized is that here, with the Yankees, it's the starting point,'' he said. "It's a completely different atmosphere and a completely different experience for me.''

Especially during a tense stretch run in which the Orioles pushed the Yankees to the brink for the division crown, Ichiro said he found easy motivation to prepare. It was unlike anything he experienced in his final years with the Mariners.

"I played a lot of Septembers when we were already out of it,'' he said. "You have to find ways to motivate yourself.''

That motivation also comes from the fans who taunted him 11 years ago, the fans he has come to appreciate. He made peace with them long ago, shortly after that defeat in the 2001 ALCS. After the season, he visited the Hall of Fame for the first time and was touched when Yankees fans asked for his autograph.

"Obviously, I didn't have to forgive them or anything,'' Ichiro said. "Because to me, they were great fans, that they really just love the game, love this atmosphere, and just enjoy their time that they had here at the ballpark. But they didn't take that outside of the stadium. They're just fans.''

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