When the Yankees made the surprising move to acquire Ichiro Suzuki last month, the word “special player” was often cited with the hope that the 38-year-old might regain some of the form that made him the owner of 10 straight 200-hit seasons.
In the last week, the Yankees have seen that version of Ichiro as their otherwise buzz-less series against the Red Sox concluded with him hitting two home runs off Josh Beckett in a 4-1 win last night.
“Obviously you always have a gameplan against a certain pitcher but I think everybody was just focused on the game,” Ichiro said through an interpreter. “It’s a very important game, obviously the rivalry. So you could just say that everybody was just focused.”
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Ichiro connected in the fourth and sixth innings off Beckett, who had fallen behind 2-0. Both times he sent fastballs into the right-field seats, with his first home run landing in the second deck.
It marked just the seventh multi-home run game of Ichiro’s 12-year career, though one was at the current Yankee Stadium nearly two years ago. That left some wondering how many he might have had if he spent his career playing in the Bronx.
“I think he’s probably hit to his ballpark in a sense all those years,” manager Joe Girardi said. “Seattle plays extremely large and if he had been a Yankee for a number of years, who knows how many home runs he might have hit? But we know that there’s power. I saw him hit one hit in Seattle to beat us, so I’m well aware of it. We watch his BP and we can see it.”
The home run Girardi was referencing was a game-winning shot in Sept. 2009 against Mariano Rivera, which earned him a curtain call in Seattle. That was the same reaction the fans at Yankee Stadium had after he turned on a 1-0 fastball in the sixth for a 4-0 lead.
“I really didn’t know how the fans were going to react,” Ichiro said. “I’m so happy that they’re behind me. It’s just really one of those special moments for me in my career to have the support of the fans. Obviously I still need to be ready and play well in the future and that’s what I’m going to continue to do.”
“I didn’t really see it because I was on deck, but Ichi’s been swinging the bat [well],” Derek Jeter said. “Everyone knows how good a hitter he is. I don’t care what the scoreboard statistics say, Ichiro can hit it to left field, right-center field and he’s got speed.”
The two home runs capped a 10-for-19 homestand and his three-hit night gave Ichiro 14 hits in his last 30 at-bats. His batting average is now up to .272, an 11-point increase from when he was acquired.
“He swung the bat very well for us and he’s gotten hot,” Girardi said. “He got hot on this homestand and had some big hits on the road trip as well. He hit two home runs and those are big hits for us. He’s played really well.”
Ichiro’s two blasts capped a business-like series for the Yankees, who have spent three of the last seven weekends winning six of 10 games against the Red Sox, who now are 13 1/2 games out of first place.
“He’s a special player,” Boston manager Bobby Valentine said of Ichiro. “I don’t know that he’s a power hitter now, but he’s one of the good ones to ever play the game.”
Besides Ichiro’s first real big night in pinstripes, the Yankees picked up their 72nd win and stayed five games up on the surging Rays by getting big nights from Jeter and Hiroki Kuroda.
Jeter continued his climb up baseball’s all-time hit list with a three-hit night as he doubled in his first two at-bats and scored the first two Yankee runs on Curtis Granderson’s double in the first and a wild pitch in the third.
It marked Jeter’s 14th game with at least three hits and also put him at 3,251 overall, one behind Nap Lajoie for 12th on the all-time list. He also moved within one of Craig Biggio for 13th on the all-time list with 1,843 runs scored.
Kuroda followed up his two-hit shutout of Texas from Tuesday with another gem. Kuroda’s night was mostly spent keeping the ball on the ground, where he recorded 12 outs, while winning for the ninth time in his last 11 decisions.
The only thing spoiling Kuroda’s night was hanging a 1-0 slider to Adrian Gonzalez that landed in the right-field seats.
“He’s been so consistent and just so good lately,” Ichiro said. “Being behind him, he’s got such good rhythm, good tempo, that you want to get some runs for him. It just feels good to play in the outfield [behind him].”
Follow Yankees beat writer Larry Fleisher on Twitter @LarryFleisher.