Usually a blowout on the scale of the Yankees' 11-1 win over Seattle on Thursday night/Friday morning possesses nothing of much interest to anyone other than fans of the team on the offensive side of the massacre.
But this particular game was unique as its scale was affected by an international interest that has been steadily growing in the MLB. Featuring Ichiro Suzuki (the greatest Japanese import in baseball history), Hideki Matsui (the most popular player in Japanese baseball before he departed for the States), and Kenji Johjima (another former Japanese baseball All-Star), the eyes of an entire foreign nation were fixated on a largely meaningless August baseball game. And while the international attention is largely focused on regional interests and not the entirety of the major leagues, the exposure of three of Japan's elite players only helps to grow baseball in a region where at one time it was unthinkable something so American, so Western, could be so beloved and embraced.
Matsui was the national baseball hero in Japan but in the major leagues the most talented and successful Japanese athlete is undoubtedly Ichiro. Since he entered the Majors in 2001 Suzuki has amassed an astounding 1973 hits — topping 200 every season in the league — has led the AL in hits five times (six if he maintains his lead this season), and even set the single season hits record in 2004 with 262, making everyone remember George Sisler once again and recognizing Ichiro's historic significance.
While his hitting style accommodates very little power — see his .811 OPS — this is more than made up for by his .333 career batting average, his .378 career .OPS, and his exceptionally low strikeout totals (573 in 5,928 at bats). Throw in his above-average speed (338 steals, leading the in league in '01) and his cannon arm, high-end range, and amazing agility, and you've got a complete ballplayer that is most likely the closest one can get too finding a modern incarnation of Ty Cobb, minus the high spikes and hookers.
But this night was destined to be ruled by the destructive power of Godzilla! Doing his damage from the cleanup spot as a DH, Matsui was the driving force behind the Yankees' offensive barrage that completely overwhelmed the helpless Mariners. Hideki posted an outstanding 4-for-5 night with two home runs (his fourth career multi-homer game) and five RBIs, driving in four runs with the longball and adding an RBI single in the top of the seventh.
While his countryman — and AL hits leader — Ichiro was held to a 1-for-4 night with one strikeout by Yankee ace CC Sabathia, Matsui put on an international spectacular for those watching in Japan and the Yankee fans staying up late enough to enjoy a solid blowout after a couple of tough series against Boston and Toronto.
While these limited matchups each season between the Yankees and Mariners offer America only a small glimpse into the rivalry between these two Japanese Icons (and Johjima), it is clear that while Matsui may not match Ichiro's refined skillfulness, Suzuki can't approach Matsui's flare for the dramatic. Which may why partially explain why Matsui, not Ichiro, has the jetliner with his picture posted on the side still flying around in Japan.
A defining moment of the night was on Matsui's second home run to right-center. Ichiro — ignoring the lopsides score — took off in a dead sprint for the warning track and seemingly levitated over the wall, stretching as far as his glove could reach. Neither the announcers, the umpires, nor Matsui could tell whether Suzuki came down with the ball at first. But as his head dropped in dejection and a fan held his own glove high in celebration, it was clear that even Ichiro's raw talent pushed to the extremes wasn't enough to stop Godzilla on Thursday. The frustration on Ichiro's face was unusually apparent.
The game was an all-around success for the Yankees. Capitalizing on a Boston defeat to Detroit earlier in the day, the Yankees pushed their lead in the AL East to 6.5 games above the Red Sox, an increasingly secure position regarding the playoffs. Sabathia was dominant, allowing one run on three hits over eight innings while striking out 10. The Yankees were banged up — with both A-Rod and Posada sitting and Jeter playing hurt — but were still able to put together a big day against recent Mariners' acquisition Ian Snell, giving starter Sabathia more than he needed to notch his 13th victory and fifth win in six decisions..
The Yankees' own new addition, Jerry Hairston Jr., filled in perfectly at third base, fielding well and posting a productive 2-for-5 day including an RBI single and an RBI double. And then of course Matsui, who has seen his playing time limited recently, obviously held down the DH role in a more than adequate fashion. The offensive provided by these two "part-time players" allowed the Yanks to not miss a beat with their rhythmically and methodically efficient offense or their starting catcher and third basemen.
Beating up on the Seattle Mariners is nothing for the Yankees to get excited about beyond the further growth of their first place cushion. But considering the game from an international perspective and seeing the elite Japanese players and the enthusiastic Japanese fans, it is very apparent what a multinational game baseball is becoming. The increased fanbase and wider connection to various cultures are vitally important because, in a time when all sports face economic hardship, a meaningless Thursday game suddenly has meaning to a whole new nation of fans, which can only help the stability of the game's future.