Brett Gardner’s elbow injury was supposed to be minor. He was going to miss two or three weeks and come back as good as new. Then he had a setback. Then another setback. And then a date with Dr. James Andrews and before you knew it, his sliding catch in April turned into a near-season-ending, surgery-requiring elbow injury. Raul Ibanez did the best he could filling in at left field, but the Yankees lost a ton of speed and defense with Gardner’s injury.
Enter Ichiro Suzuki. A few days after Gardner’s surgery, the Yankees swung a trade with the Mariners to bring the 38-year-old Japanese superstar to the Bronx to fill that speed and defense hole. Ichiro had previously informed Seattle’s management that he was sick of losing and would welcome a trade to a contender, which is when New York got involved. Ichiro agreed to some conditions (he was going to play left, sit against lefties, hit near the bottom of the order), the Mariners ate some salary (roughly $4M), and the Yankees surrendered some spare parts (D.J. Mitchell and Danny Farquhar). After 12 years in the Great Northwest, Ichiro officially became a Yankee on July 23rd.
Coincidentally enough, the Yankees were in Seattle at the time of the trade. Ichiro’s first game in pinstripes came against his former team, and he singled on a ground ball back up the middle in his first at-bat following a lengthy standing ovation from the crowd. His Yankees career started with a 12-game exactly-one-hit streak, and through his first 40 games with the team he hit .271/.297/.398, including a two-homer game against Josh Beckett and the Red Sox. That was pretty much exactly in line with expectations considering his .268/.302/.342 batting line with the Mariners from the start of 2011 through the day of the trade. Ichiro had settled in nicely as that platoon left fielder at the bottom of the order.
The Yankees were playing rather intense games down the stretch in September after blowing a ten-game lead and finding out that the Orioles weren’t just going to go away. They were just one game up in the standings when they arrived at Camden Yards on September 6th for the start of an important four-game series, and that’s when Ichiro took his game up a notch. He went 3-for-4 in the series opener and 2-for-4 in both the third and fourth games to help the Yankees split the series and maintain their one-game lead.
The Blue Jays came to the Bronx about a week later and Ichiro took his game up another notch. He went 9-for-12 in the three-game series, including a 4-for-4 with four steals effort in the middle game that including the game-winning single in the eighth. He also had six hits in six consecutive at-bats against left-handed pitchers at one point during the series. The barrage continued, as Ichiro went 6-for-13 against the Athletics in the following series and closed his season out on a 37-for-94 (.394) run in the final 25 games of the season. He shed the platoon label and moved up in the order, becoming the full-time left fielder and two-hole hitter.
Ichiro was one of the team’s best hitters in the postseason (11-for-40, .275), and he ended the season with a .322/.340/.454 batting line in 240 plate appearances with the Yankees. He also stole 14 bases in 19 chances, including ten in 12 chances in the final 25 games of the season. Ichiro practically fell into the club’s lap — the Mariners initiated trade talks at the ownership level — but he fit New York’s needs and provided the spark they were missing without Gardner. Maybe that ridiculous 25-game finish to the season was him being rejuvenated by playing for a contender or maybe it was just dumb luck, but either way Ichiro was a huge reason why the Yankees were able to fend off the Orioles down the stretch and win another AL East title. Trade deadline rentals don’t get much better.