10/06/12 12:17 AM ET
Ichiro has unfinished business in postseason
By Steven Miller / MLB.com
"That was a tough moment," Ichiro said. "That's what I remember about 2001."
Ichiro is back in the postseason for the first time since the Yankees advanced to the 2001 World Series with a 12-3 win over the Mariners in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series, ending the outfielder's historic first season in the United States. The now-38-year-old captivated fans in the regular season and playoffs that year, as well as through the first 10 years of his career before his statistics began to decline last season.
Ichiro hit .421 (16-for-38) in his 10 career playoff games, scoring seven runs and driving in five.
Despite Ichiro's string of 10 consecutive seasons with more than 200 hits and a .300 batting average or higher, which ended last year, the Mariners have enjoyed only four winning seasons since setting a Major League record with 116 wins in 2001, when Ichiro won the AL Most Valuable Player and AL Rookie of the Year Awards.
Ichiro was in the midst of another middling season, hitting .261, before he asked the Seattle brass for a trade, sparking a conversation between Yankees president Randy Levine and Seattle counterpart Chuck Armstrong that led to a July 23 trade to New York for a pair of prospects.
After the trade, Ichiro hit .322 (73-for-227) with 13 doubles, a triple and five home runs, scoring 28 runs and driving in 27 while stealing 14 bases -- enough to lead a team with which he spent little more than two months of the season.
"Taking myself out of this, I just came in the middle of this," Ichiro said. "I just wanted to contribute. I just wanted to come help this team, and I just feel like we've made that first step and were able to make the playoffs."
Yankees officials believed Ichiro grew tired of playing for a team that was focused on developing for a future that may not have included him, considering his impending free agency. They felt that returning the outfielder to a postseason race would give him the spark with which he has played most of his career. Ichiro insists that even in Seattle, he entered Spring Training every year prepared to fight for a playoff spot, but he cannot deny the positive effect that playing for a postseason berth again had on him.
The atmosphere of a home crowd witnessing the Yankees hold off the Orioles for the final month of the season en route to an AL East title forced Ichiro to focus even more during every trip to the plate, he said.
"Playing in September in the past has been tough," Ichiro said. "Coming here, it was a whole new experience."
Ichiro agreed to hit toward the bottom of the Yankees' lineup and move from right field to left upon arriving in New York, with the Yankees expecting to receive an aging complementary player, albeit one with the potential to rediscover his youth. Ichiro proceeded to force himself into a regular role, moving to the top of the order at times during a final month that rivaled any from the first 10 years of his Major League career.
Ichiro hit .272 (36-for-132) with seven runs scored, 12 RBIs, three stolen bases and nine extra-base hits in his first 40 games as a Yankee. But starting on Sept. 4, the day the Orioles pulled into a tie atop the division, he hit .390 (37-for-95) with 19 runs scored, 13 RBIs, 10 steals and nine extra-base hits in 27 games.
Ichiro's batting average rose from .261 at the time of the trade to .283 at the end of his 12th big league season.
"I've been watching him play since I first came up," Yankees outfielder Nick Swisher said. "This guy's a magician with that bat."
Ichiro will once again attempt to conjure some of the postseason magic he displayed as a rookie, with the Yankees opening the AL Division Series on Sunday in Baltimore, which won Friday night's AL Wild Card game between the Orioles and Rangers. New York will then return to the Bronx for the final three games -- if necessary -- of the best-of-five ALDS.
But Ichiro realizes that his September curtain calls -- and maybe the taunts of 2001 -- will be forgotten as the regular season gives way to the playoffs.
"We have to move forward, not just with how feel, but everyday play," Ichiro said. "I'm real excited about it."
Steven Miller is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.