Hours before the Yankees battered the Blue Jays on Friday night, Munenori Kawasaki and Ichiro Suzuki met on the field during batting practice, bowed with respect, and exchanged a few words before going about their business.
Kawasaki grew up idolizing Ichiro, inspired that a lean, smart ballplayer could make a career for himself in Japanese baseball and later the major leagues, even all but copying his batting style. Their on-field personalities are diametrically opposite, though, Kawasaki being demonstrative and joyous, Suzuki stoic and serious.
Kawasaki, 31, became an instant sensation in Twitterville after being called up to the Blue Jays last Saturday to replace injured shortstop Jose Reyes. He’s performed headstands behind the batting cage before the game, saluted the camera with a sideways peace sign in the dugout, bowed to each teammate before high-fiving each one in the post-game victory lineup.
“He is the type of guy, he would be that way in any sport,” Suzuki, 39, said in the Yankees’ clubhouse through an interpreter. “If he played soccer for Manchester United, he would be the same way.”
During Friday’s 9-4 loss, not even Kawasaki could pump up a muted crowd. Suzuki, trying to fend off a slow start, had a double and scored a run in the 13-hit barrage. Being former Blue Jays, Lyle Overbay and Vernon Wells heard the obligatory boos from the crowd of 40,028, and each responded with a solo home run. Wells also collected an RBI in the Yankees’ two-run first after Travis Hafner had doubled in a run and moved Kevin Youkilis to third base.
After Hafner hit a one-out solo homer in the third, Wells singled and Suzuki doubled him to third. Both scored when centre fielder Colby Rasmus caught a fly by Eduardo Nunez but had his throw to the plate bounce away from catcher J.P. Arencibia.
Brandon Morrow (0-2), working at a plodding pace by comparison to Yankees starter Andy Pettitte (3-0), gave up nine hits and seven runs (five earned) in 5<AF>1/3<XA> innings. His fastball ran mainly in the 91-92 mph zone, compared with 97-99 mph in his first start of the season. Overbay hit the solo homer to start the Yankees scoring in a three-run sixth, for an 8-1 lead.
Pettitte worked the Jays surgically, keeping hitters off-balance with an assortment of off-speed pitches, allowing seven hits in 6<AF>1/3<XA> innings. He’d permitted only three hits, including the first two of the season by Brett Lawrie, until the sixth when Jose Bautista, returning as DH after missing four straight games, hammered a fastball into the second-deck party zone in straightaway centre field.
The Jays record at the Rogers Centre dropped to 4-7. Opponents scored first for the 12th time in 17 games.
Suzuki departed Japan in 2001 to join the Seattle Mariners, and Kawasaki played for the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks in a dome with a retractable roof identical to the Rogers Centre’s. Kawasaki and Suzuki would play together on Japan’s teams in the World Baseball Classics of 2006 and 2009, then as teammates in Seattle last year. Kawasaki had become eligible for free agency following the 2011 season, after collecting 161 hits in 144 games to help the Hawks win the Japan Series, and said he would only play for Seattle, with Suzuki.
“Without Ichiro, I wouldn’t be the player I am now,” Kawasaki said.
The Mariners traded Suzuki to the Yankees midway through last season, ending their North American partnership abruptly.
“It was sad,” Kawasaki said. “But I was very lucky to play together with him and now I am grateful to the Toronto Blue Jays for this opportunity.”
Kawasaki, weighing 165 pounds like Suzuki, is thrilling to a second chance in the majors, having been released by Seattle after hitting .192.
“Before watching Ichiro for the first time, he had a myth that baseball players were huge,” said a translator, paraphrasing Kawasaki’s words during a pregame interview. “With Ichiro, he saw a speedy, skinny, smart player with a strong arm. Ichiro showed him there are so many ways to play and so many ways to hit the ball.”