Shades of graceful Ichiro in electric Puig
Veteran's effortless style mirrored by Dodgers rookie during quick rise
NEW YORK -- Watching Ichiro Suzuki and Yasiel Puig play right field and swing their bats on Wednesday at Yankee Stadium was like jumping inside a time machine and revisiting masters of previous generations.
Ichiro invariably calls to mind Tony Gwynn, the Padres' Hall of Fame magician with a piece of lumber in his hands. The game Ichiro plays is one of precision, every subtle movement carrying purpose and meaning.
Like Gwynn, Ichiro, the stylish man from Japan, is an artist. Even on the downslope of a remarkable career at age 39, he can seize control of a game in a variety of ways.
In the entertaining opener of a day-night doubleheader taken, 6-4, by the Yankees, Ichiro homered and singled twice, driving in three runs and scoring twice. He also made the play of the game defensively, leaping to rob Adrian Gonzalez of extra bases a moment before Hanley Ramirez's two-run homer, his fourth hit, in the eighth inning.
With Puig unloading his fifth homer in 15 games and Ramirez continuing to pound Yankees pitching, the Dodgers earned a split in the nightcap with a 6-0 victory behind Chris Capuano. With four hits in the two games, also reaching safely when he was hit by a pitch, Puig scored four times. Ichiro was quiet in the second game after making his noise in the opener.
"He's been playing extremely well," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said when asked about Ichirio's offensive surge over the past week. "He has the ability to get really hot. He can do that."
Dodgers rookie southpaw Hyun-Jin Ryu, the victim of Ichiro's third homer of the season, commended the hitter through an interpreter.
"On the home run," Ryu said, "I put the ball exactly where I wanted it -- and he got it in the air and hit it out."
Puig -- a young, ambitious Cuban version of the late, great Roberto Clemente -- needed no interpreter to articulate how amped he was for his debut in the sport's Bronx cathedral. His actions spoke volumes.
In four of his five at-bats during the opener, Puig hit the ball squarely, collecting a double and a single and getting robbed of a third hit by second baseman Robinson Cano. The game ended with matchless Mariano Rivera introducing Yasiel to his third-strike cutter. Puig responded in the nightcap with a bunt single and was hit by a pitch, scoring both times, before going the other way for his homer in the seventh inning against Adam Warren, in relief of Phil Hughes.
In everything he does -- including getting thrown out trying to stretch a routine single to center into a double, as he did in the first inning against Hiroki Kuroda -- Puig oozes excitement and charisma.
"He hits the ball hard, I can tell you," Girardi said of the 22-year-old sensation. "You see that he's an aggressive young player and has tools -- a lot of tools. Speed, power, arm -- we saw the tools in the first inning, what he's able to do.
"It's a game of adjustments ... but there's a lot to like about this kid."
In stark contrast to Ichiro, who improvises cool jazz, Puig is hard rock, charged by electricity. You can't take your eyes off the guy, knowing you might miss something you'll never see again. He's that unique.
A play Puig made on Thomas Neal leading off the second against Ryu -- charging Neal's sharp single and unleashing a throw that skidded past Adrian Gonzalez at first -- characterized the Cuban star's approach to the game: Go hard, go fast and go for the gusto. Ask or take questions later.
"He's a very interesting player," Ichiro said via an interpreter. "He has a lot of impact. You saw it in [Puig] trying to throw out the guy at first -- and running to second on a single through the middle. Big impact."
Puig was a blur bolting for second again, successfully, leading off the eighth on a rocket to left-center.
In his prime with Seattle, Ichiro ran like that and was a peerless defender, earning 10 Rawlings American League Gold Glove Awards. He could throw in Puig's class but never had the raw power of the spectacular Dodgers rookie. Ichiro beat you softly, deftly; Puig looks determined to steamroll you.
Ichiro has played almost as many seasons (13) as Puig has games (15), seven times leading the AL in hits, twice claiming batting titles with averages of .350 in his 2001 AL Rookie of the Year season and .372 in 2004.
After a career spent almost exclusively as a leadoff man for the Mariners before his move to New York in the middle of last season, Ichiro has made the transition to moveable piece in Girardi's offense.
Ichiro started in the No. 6 spot on Wednesday afternoon for just the 18th time in 1,975 Major League games. He has hit everywhere but third and fourth this season for the Yankees.
It seems odd finding Ichiro in a place in the order normally reserved for guys who swing from the heels, not the balls of their feet. But Ichiro is adaptable and amenable at this stage of his career, his meter running.
"I haven't changed anything," Ichiro said in relation to his .400 stretch over seven games, raising his season average to .270.
Pressed about the hot streak, he grinned and said, "I have no idea [why]. Maybe you can ask a fortune teller."
When he cued his two-run single to left in the seventh against Paco Rodriguez for insurance the Yankees would need, Ichiro raised his career average in bases-loaded situations to .403.
The three hits raised his career total to 2,667. Signed through 2014, Ichiro is about two full seasons away from reaching 3,000 in the U.S. and virtually guaranteeing his enshrinement in Cooperstown, N.Y.
Ichiro will be 40 on Oct. 22. As fastidious about his conditioning as any athlete alive, he has experienced only mild erosion of his skills, speed and quickness.
As he wrapped up his interview between games of the doubleheader, Ichiro dropped straight to the floor and begin stretching. He's been doing this since he arrived in North America -- stretching, stretching, reaching for greatness.
Yasiel Puig, the phenom, can only hope to endure as well and as gracefully.