Same new attitude for Mariners' stars
Ichiro, first-timer Hernandez riding high into All-Star Game
ST. LOUIS -- With a winning record, two All-Star players and one All-Star coach who happens to be their manager, the Mariners have hit St. Louis with a new attitude.
Gone are any thoughts of the 101-loss season that put them at the bottom of the American League in 2008, and here to stay are thoughts of October -- the Mariners are in the thick of the AL West race -- and of an All-Star celebration in the Gateway City.
In town to get ready for Tuesday night's 80th Midsummer Classic at Busch Stadium (5 p.m. PT on FOX) are right fielder and AL leadoff man Ichiro Suzuki, first-time All-Star pitcher Felix Hernandez and Seattle's first-year manager Don Wakamatsu, who was selected by AL All-Star skipper Joe Maddon to be a coach.
"First, when you think about the new teammates -- [Ken Griffey] Junior, [Mike] Sweeney and [Russell] Branyan -- they bring a good atmosphere to the team," Ichiro said through interpreter Ken Barron when asked about what has been different about this year's club.
"And also, when you have more wins than losses, things happen. Things come about just from that. So we see the influences of that as well this season.
"But besides that, the No. 1 field commander, the manager, he has been huge. He has been very calm and cool-headed, and he prevents the players from panicking in certain situations. He also has an ability to evaluate things kind of in an outside-looking-in way. That has been huge for us, as well."
One thing Wakamatsu has no problem evaluating is what Ichiro means to the team.
This is the ninth Midsummer Classic for Ichiro, who has been an All-Star in all nine seasons he's been with the Mariners. The 35-year-old hit machine finished second to Red Sox outfielder Jason Bay in fan voting, receiving more than 2.2 million votes. It's the eighth time Ichiro will be introduced with the AL starters.
Ichiro is trying to become the first player in MLB history to have nine consecutive 200-hit seasons. He leads the Major Leagues in hits with 123 despite missing the first eight games of the season while on the 15-day disabled list, caused by a bleeding ulcer that he apparently developed during the World Baseball Classic.
But he has not missed a beat since returning to action and has not gone longer than one game this season without at least one hit. Ichiro had a career-best 27-game hitting streak in May.
"Rather than say I'm 100 percent back, probably I feel the best that I ever have," Ichiro said Monday.
The ninth consecutive All-Star Game for Ichiro is one shy of the franchise record held since 1999 by Griffey.
Ichiro is 7-for-21 in his Midsummer Classic career, including a 3-for-3 game in 2007. One of the hits was the only inside-the-park home run in All-Star Game history, a drive into right-center at AT&T Park in San Francisco. Griffey happened to be the NL right fielder in the game.
But more important than the numbers, Wakamatsu said, is the fact that any negative feelings that might have been directed at Ichiro by teammates in the past have gone away in a hurry.
"You can't argue with the year he's having," Wakamatsu said. "There was animosity on the club with certain things that he does, but there was just as much my part to try to educate them on why he does that and that it's not in a selfish manner, because he plays and prepares better than anybody.
"If you talk about Japanese-style baseball, if you're down by 12 runs in Japan, you'll bunt, because that's getting a runner on. Here it's like, 'Why are you doing that?' But the point is, that's more stereotypical that people have that mind-set. And if he wants to get on base to help our club, it's not a selfish act.
|Ichiro Suzuki, rf|
|Derek Jeter, ss|
|Joe Mauer, c|
|Mark Teixeira, 1b|
|Jason Bay, lf|
|Josh Hamilton, cf|
|Evan Longoria, 3b|
|Aaron Hill, 2b|
|Roy Halladay, p|
|Hanley Ramirez, ss|
|Chase Utley, 2b|
|Albert Pujols, 1b|
|Ryan Braun, rf|
|Raul Ibanez, lf|
|David Wright, 3b|
|Shane Victorino, cf|
|Yadier Molina, c|
|Tim Lincecum, p|
"I think we tried to point everybody in his direction, saying, 'You need to stop pointing the finger that way,' and start saying, 'Well, this guy has stayed healthy, this guy's been on the All-Star team every year, this guy's gotten 200 hits a season.' You might want to cherish that and learn from that rather than mock it."
Meanwhile, all Hernandez seems to do is keep learning.
The Mariners right-hander was regarded throughout baseball as one of the best young pitchers in the game throughout his teenage years (he was 16 when he signed), and the Seattle organization made sure he developed at a slow pace instead of rushing him through the Minor League system.
Hernandez had to mature physically and mentally, and he has done so well at both that he's among the elite pitchers in the big leagues. And he's also an All-Star at the age of 23.
"Being here with all the All-Stars, it's an honor to be a part of this game," Hernandez said. "I'm just happy to be here. I don't know if there will be many more. I just want to be part of this game and just have fun."
Hernandez said he took his wife and children to St. Louis with him and has been hoping for this particular accomplishment for a long time.
"When I was like 13 years old, I said, 'I want to be there. I want to be part of this game,' Hernandez said. "And now I'm here and it's awesome."
Since May 19, Hernandez has been simply awesome, too.
He lost to the Angels at Safeco Field that night and was verbally challenged by Wakamatsu to step it up and perform like a staff ace. He had a 4-3 record and 4.13 ERA at the time, and since that game -- which he lost, 6-5, and had five bases stolen against him -- Hernandez is 5-0 with a 1.19 ERA.
"He was a guy who, if you watched him in Spring Training, he'd rather sit back in the background and kind of be this jokester," Wakamatsu said. "And in fairness to him, he's 23 years old. A lot of this, I think, is a natural progression of his maturity.
"And that's the biggest thing I've seen. Just the way he's walking, the way he's represented in the clubhouse, some of the things he does. Those are the things we talk about regardless of how he's pitching -- that the off-field, the on-field, his presence in the dugout, had to grow first. Was he willing to be the guy that everybody had anointed him to?"
Hernandez's peers around the league have answered that question with a resounding yes.
Mets All-Star closer Francisco Rodriguez, a Venezuelan countryman of Hernandez, said it's been impressive to watch the kid come into his own.
"Right now, he's in the process of developing himself into an ace of a staff, and he's got all the tools," Rodriguez said. "He's a guy with tremendous talent, and it doesn't surprise me that he's an All-Star. He showed the potential early in his career that he could be one of the best pitchers in the American League."
Hernandez said the progression isn't hard to explain.
"I've been more aggressive in attacking the strike zone," Hernandez said. "And I can throw any pitch in any count.
"After my first season, I pitched good, my second season was a little hard because they knew me already ... so I said, 'I've gotta do something.'"
He'll do it again Tuesday night, this time as an All-Star.
Doug Miller is a reporter for MLB.com. MLB.com reporter Jim Street contributed to this report. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.