ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Ichiro Suzuki came to the ballpark Tuesday night decked out in customarily garish attire: a striped T-shirt under a plaid button-down shirt over a pair of tight jeans rolled up at the ankles and finished off with a pair of glittery silver high-tops.
But so far this season, his clubhouse entrance had been the highlight of his day. Coming into Monday night's game against the Rays, Ichiro was hitting just .200 and his on-base percentage was a puny .250. In fact, he had been on base so rarely he had yet to even attempt a stolen base.
With 12 exemplary big-league seasons to his credit, Ichiro was due to break out. Or, at 39 years old, he might also have been due to retire.
Well, hold the retirement party and postpone the career victory lap. Just when it seemed as if it were time for the old man to take a nice, comfy seat in the dugout, Ichiro was instrumental in perhaps the most unlikely Yankees victory of the year, a game in which Phil Hughes matched David Price and a Yankees lineup that had been unable to hit lefties wound up beating one of the best in the game.
And they would not have done it without Ichiro, whose legs helped them steal the tying run in the eighth inning and whose bat drove home the winning runs in the ninth.
"His speed helped us," said Joe Girardi, "and he's been a great hitter for a long time."
With the Yankees trailing 2-1 in the eighth and Price having thrown just 81 pitches and in charge, the Yankees seemed headed for a second straight defeat by the Rays when Ichiro singled with one out. But what really made the inning was his second attempted steal of the season -- he had tried to swipe second in the fifth but was thrown out as part of a strikeout-throw out double play -- which turned into a hit-and-run play when Jayson Nix singled to left. That gave the Yankees runners at the corners for Brett Gardner, whose groundout to second was enough to bring Ichiro home with the tying run.
“It was a steal, so I was just running," Ichiro said. "I didn’t see him hit the ball, but I heard it. Luckily when I looked up, I saw the ball in front of me. That was when I knew I could get to third."
It was the kind of small-ball run that Girardi has been saying the Yankees would have to score more of this year in the absence of many of the best hitters in their lineup.
And Ichiro's game winner in the top of the ninth wasn't much bigger, just a flare into medium center off reliever Fernando Rodney with the bases loaded that plated two runs, both of which became necessary when Evan Longoria hit Mariano Rivera's first pitch of the bottom of the ninth into the left-field seats to cut the Yankees' margin to 4-3.
But it was more than enough, and by far the biggest hit Ichiro has delivered since the regular season began. “I haven’t been able to do much, but hopefully things like this will get me past it and be able to have a good year," he said.
There are indications that Ichiro might be pulling out of his early-season funk: After starting the season 8-for-42 (.190), he has five hits in his last 17 at-bats.
"Hopefully it really gets him going because we’ve seen him, and he can get extremely hot," Girardi said. "We saw what he did last year for us. There’s always going to be a couple of guys who get off to slow starts. A lot of times there’s no rhyme or reason for it, but as we know being around here, when you’re older everyone is going to question who you are. If you’re heavy, they'll question that. If you’re old, they question that. You’re best off being in your prime and thin when you’re struggling.”
Ichiro is thin at least, which is an essential requirement for his quirky wardrobe. And as long as he continues to play as if he’s in his prime, that clubhouse entrance may no longer be the highlight of his day at the ballpark.