Patience has its reward for Ichiro

The low point for Ichiro came on April 30 with an 0-for-5 at Yankee Stadium, the final game of the historic three-game series against countryman Hideki Matsui. It dropped Ichiro's average to .243, nearly 100 points below his career average. The whispers grew a little louder. Has he lost something? Is he bored? Has the league figured him out? Will he be great again?

No, no, no and yes. Through Tuesday, Ichiro was hitting .409 in May, raising his season average to .319, and raising his career average in May to an astonishing .396. He has gone hitless in only two games in this month, belting three home runs and driving in 14 runs, including some key ones in big games. Not surprisingly, the Mariners have played extremely well during his hot streak, going 15-8 to open a three-game lead in the American League West. "With us, it all starts with Ichiro,'' Mariners manager Bob Melvin said.

It's possible that the distraction of the series against Matsui may have contributed to Ichiro's struggles. It was a huge event in Japan, and for the Japanese media covering the Mariners and Yankees. Ichiro never has been comfortable with the attention he has received from the Japanese media traveling with the team. One teammate said Ichiro was opposed to the two-game series between the Mariners and A's in March in Japan (which was ultimately cancelled) because it would have been a circus, and all he wants to do is play.

It's convenient to say that Ichiro began to hit after the sideshow with Matsui and the Yankees was over, but in truth, the turnaround for Ichiro at the plate has been tied mostly to his pitch selection. Some guys are high-ball hitters, some are low-ball hitters, Ichiro can hit any pitch, in any location, at any time. Two years ago he hit a bouncing ball for a single; we learned that in Japan, he practiced hitting bouncing balls. There's nothing that he can't hit, and that worked against him. He swung at some bad pitches, especially early in the count.

"It was obvious,'' one scout said. "It didn't matter where the pitch was, he was hacking. The last month, he hasn't lost his aggressiveness, he's just being a little more selective up there.''

This isn't the first time the league thought it had Ichiro figured out, and was wrong. The Yankees stopped him in the 2001 ALCS, holding him to four hits in 18 at-bats (.222) by busting him in with hard stuff. You heard the whispers after that series, also, but teams who tried to blast him inside consistently in 2002 eventually paid for it. His numbers did drop from 2001, but he still hit .321 with 208 hits. Pitchers worked him in quite a bit in April, also, but he can turn on that inside pitch and hit it a long way. He's much like Wade Boggs in that respect. Boggs had great power, but he preferred to use it only in batting practice, or in a home run hitting contest. Ichiro is the same way. "You should see him consistently in batting practice,'' Melvin said. "He hits a ton of them (homers).''

The only thing that has decreased from 2001 and '02 is Ichiro's stolen bases. He has nine in 11 tries this year, a pace for 27, less than half his league-leading total in his MVP season of 2001. He is so fast, and so good at stealing bases, most pitchers, if not all, use an exaggerated slide-step when he gets on base. They have speeded up their delivery to 1.1 seconds, or 1.2, making it difficult to run. Ichiro often is on his own on the bases. He's a very intelligent player, he knows when to risk running. Plus, by being even a threat on the bases, pitchers are going to throw more fastballs, which helps the rest of the lineup.

Even when he was stumbling at the plate, Ichiro helped his team. He is the best defensive right fielder in the league. He throws as well as any right fielder in the game. "If he doesn't beat you at the plate,'' Melvin says, "he can help you win the game in other ways.''

Now, he's winning games with this bat again. If he gets 200 hits this season, he will join Johnny Pesky and Lloyd Waner as the only players in history to reach 200 hits in their first three major-league seasons. That likely will happen, and we will learn another lesson: with as resourceful as he is with the bat, and with his blazing speed, never, ever underestimate Ichiro.

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to Baseball Tonight. E-mail tim.kurkjian@espnmag.com.