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Wednesday, March 21
Speed is Suzuki's primary weapon

PEORIA, Ariz. -- Bobby Valentine would not have believed his eyes in the first two weeks of exhibition games. Pitchers were reducing Japanese legend Ichiro Suzuki to a slap hitter.

According to the Mets' manager, Suzuki is "one of the five best baseball players in the world." Valentine predicts Suzuki -- or Ichiro, as the player has asked to be known -- will drive enough balls down the lines and into the spacious gaps at Safeco Field to set an American League record for triples. That record, by the way, is 26, shared by Shoeless Joe Jackson and Sam Crawford.

"This guy is different," said Valentine, who spent 1995 managing against Suzuki in Japan. "He is very, very good."

This much is sure: Suzuki is very, very fast. As he began to make the adjustment to big-league pitching, the left-handed-hitting Suzuki kept his batting average in good shape by slapping soft liners past the third baseman or beating out grounders on the left side of the infield. But where was the guy whose bat prompted Seattle to invest over $28 million in him?

"He's a good ballplayer, man," Seattle center fielder Mike Cameron said. "He's having to make adjustments like everybody else. ... As soon as he feels comfortable, makes adjustments, he'll be fine."

Suzuki may indeed prove Cameron right. He served notice to the American League on Tuesday, going 3-for-4 with two doubles and a home run against the Oakland Athletics. He pulled a fastball from reliever Eric Hiljus, driving it into a bullpen beyond the right-field fence.

"He got a low fastball and he hit it over the right-field wall," Mariners manager Lou Piniella told reporters afterward. "He's got a good swing. ... We've been waiting to see him do that. The ball jumps off his bat in batting practice. We just wanted to see that in a game."

Suzuki's two doubles came against Oakland starter Gil Heredia. He burned left fielder Robin Jennings, who had been playing shallow to cut off singles.

"He showed me something today," Mariners' hitting coach Gerald Perry told Seattle reporters. "It was good to see. Now the defense has to play him honestly. The outfielders can't play him shallow anymore."

Suzuki collected 12 to 25 home runs a year for the Orix Blue Wave and has such gap power that Valentine says Piniella will be making a mistake if he bats him leadoff. "I said that in Japan when we played his team," Valentine said. "The next time we played him, he was hitting third. I probably shouldn't have said anything."

Piniella isn't expected to take Valentine's advice. He plans to use Suzuki in the leadoff spot rather than in the No. 3 spot, which was previously home to Alex Rodriguez and Ken Griffey Jr.

With Jay Buhner's status uncertain, the Mariners' lineup remains a work in progress. General manager Pat Gillick has been working the telephone and hopes to get help before the April 2 opener against Oakland.

John Olerud is expected to hit third with Edgar Martinez in the cleanup spot. Barring a trade, it looks like Piniella will have to choose between Al Martin, David Bell, Bret Boone and Cameron for his No. 5 and 6 hitters. Buhner is sidelined by plantar fasciaitis, which could require surgery and has the outfielder thinking retirement.

"We don't have a power team like we had in the past, so we're going to have to do the other things to score runs," Piniella said. "We have to hit-and-run, steal bases, bunt, take the extra base and find a way to get runners home. That's a style that Ichiro fits very well."

While scouts and opposing players have generally been underwhelmed by Suzuki's approach at the plate, he is hitting .333. He is an aggressive hitter who uses his speed, not his patience, to get on base.

"For certain, looking at him, he belongs in the No. 1 hole," Piniella said earlier this spring. "He's not going to strike out much. He reminds me some of Brett Butler. He hasn't shown much ability to pull the ball, and they're playing him to left. If he keeps that up, they'll start bunching the defense to that side."

Suzuki, who can play all the outfield positions, inherited right field when Buhner volunteered to move to left. He has played well in the outfield, showing a strong arm. The Cubs tested him last Sunday and he threw a strike to nail Sammy Sosa, who was trying to score on a flyout by Julio Zuleta.

Cameron says he hasn't needed to learn any Japanese to play alongside him. "It's cool," he said. "I don't talk too much anyway, especially on the baseball field. It's been easy to work with him."

Cameron turned sheepish when asked if he had taught Suzuki any English. "Not really," he said. "Well, we taught him a few words, but probably just ones you don't want to hear."

They're sure to come in handy -- later, if not sooner.

Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has a web site at www.chicagosports.com.

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