Tough for Ichiro to crack Marlins' talented outfield

Vet pursuing 3,000 hits, but young trio gives Miami best chance to win

April 13th, 2016

NEW YORK -- In Giancarlo Stanton, Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna, the Marlins potentially have one of the best young outfields in the Major Leagues.

Yet, Miami manager Don Mattingly has his hands full trying to utilize that trio to its full potential, plus integrate 42-year-old Ichiro Suzuki into the mix as he pursues the goal of 3,000 hits.

"I'm not that old," Ichiro said after Wednesday's 2-1 loss when asked about his younger teammates after Mattingly started him for the first time this season in the Marlins' seventh game.

Ichiro drilled a double into the gap in right-center off Mets starter Logan Verrett to open the fourth. He wound up stranded on second base.

Coupled with his pinch-hit infield single Tuesday, Ichiro stands at 2,937 hits, 63 away from becoming the 30th player to reach the coveted 3,000-hit plateau and the first from Japan.

Ichiro passed Marlins hitting coach Barry Bonds on the all-time list Tuesday. Frank Robinson is up next at 2,943.

Mattingly said he has no plan when and how to start Ichiro.

"There's no true plan. We'll use him as we need to use him," said Mattingly, in his first year managing the team after winning three consecutive National League West titles with the Dodgers. "I'm sure we'll have nicked-up injuries and I'll use him more when the other guys are banged up. But those young outfielders, we want them to get going and play every day."

To illustrate how delicate the situation is for Mattingly, he told Ichiro that he was playing center field and batting second Wednesday before the previous game. But the man known as "Donnie Baseball" hesitated to make the move public until he informed Ozuna he wasn't playing.

Ozuna, 25, is a pet project for Bonds and Mattingly. Ozuna is hoping for a bounce back after his numbers dipped from 23 homers and 85 RBIs in his rookie season in 2014 to 10 homers and 44 RBIs last year.

"We've been working very hard with him," Mattingly said about Ozuna. "He just had a terrible sophomore year, but he's very attentive and he listens. He's a great kid."

That's why Bonds was on the dugout steps, wildly cheering for Ozuna when he hit his first homer of the season to lead off the sixth inning of Monday night's 10-3 victory. Stanton had hit his second homer during a seven-run second, a towering shot into the left-field seats.

Add the 24-year-old Yelich, and Miami's outfielders offer power, speed and defense. Both Yelich in left and Ozuna in center can go get the ball. Stanton, at 26, is a mountain of a man listed at 6-foot-6, 246 pounds, and he works hard defensively in right field.

But Stanton has already hit 183 homers, and his proclivity is to hammer the ball on prodigious arcs deep into the recesses of every ballpark.

The challenge is keeping Stanton healthy. Last year, he played in only 74 games after he broke the hamate bone at the base of his left hand. In 2014, Stanton missed the final few weeks of that season when he was hit in the face by a pitch, incurring multiple facial fractures and dental damage.

Otherwise, there really is no limit on what Stanton can accomplish.

"I expect Stanton to hit home runs as well as I did as a player, because he has that capability," said Bonds, the all-time leader with 762. "He could hit as many or more as I did. Now is he ready and mature and fine tuned to be as consistent and patient enough to do it? I'm not sure.

"Can Ozuna do it? Yes, he can. Is he capable? Yes. Will he? That's the unknown. I don't know. But all those guys remind me of my early days playing for the Pirates in the outfield with a young Bobby Bonilla and Andy Van Slyke. They're that good."

Ichiro is a student of the game and knows all this. Even at his advanced age for baseball, the left-handed swinger is durable and flexible. This is the fourth consecutive season -- two with the Yankees and a pair with the Marlins -- that Suzuki has been used as an extra outfielder.

Nothing has changed, said his interpreter, Allen Turner. Ichiro's training and routine hasn't been altered. He still comes to the ballpark and prepares to play every single day.

Ichiro's hitting skills are in obvious decline. Thus, Mattingly is in a quandary. He wants Ichiro to reach 3,000 hits this season, but the real goal is to win as many games as he can. And the best way to win is to play the three young guys.

"I think that's the context in which I'd like to see Ichiro get it, winning games," Mattingly said. "That's what he's here for. He says he's going to play a long time. I can't worry about that. It kind of comes with trying to win games. And if the 3,000 hits come with that, I hope it happens."