Mariners star nears most hits record

Beth Harris and Beth Harris

A few years ago, Ichiro Suzuki spent three days on his own wandering around the Hall of Fame, hoping to learn about the history of baseball in America.

At this rate, he’s about to become part of it.

Coming off two big games against the Angels, the Seattle Mariners star is nearing one of the longest-standing offensive records in the major leagues: the 84-year-old mark for most hits in a season.

After an off-day Thursday, Suzuki will go into a weekend series at Texas with 247 hits, giving him 10 games to break George Sisler’s record of 257 set with the St. Louis Browns in 1920.

“I want to get my next hit. That’s what I’m focusing on,” Suzuki said through an interpreter, explaining that his next target is 250 hits. “It’s great that I can be in this position.”

Suzuki went 5-for-5 at Anaheim on Tuesday night and added four more hits in a 16-6 victory over Anaheim on Wednesday night.

Suzuki raised his average to .374, best in the big leagues. Barry Bonds was hitting .370 going into San Francisco’s game against Houston on Thursday night.

How does Suzuki do it?

“If you throw him inside, he hits a bullet, and if you throw him away, he slaps it the other way or up the middle,” Angels pitcher Jarrod Washburn said. “I don’t know if you can throw a pitch he can’t get a hit on. It’s hard to believe that somebody has that good a hand-eye coordination.”

Suzuki is a singles hitter in an era where power is celebrated. The 30-year-old Gold Glove right fielder is the first player to collect at least 200 hits in each of his first four major league seasons.

Suzuki’s 909 career hits are approaching the major league record for the most over any four-year span (918 by Bill Terry from 1929-1932).

But Sisler’s mark is the big one.

“The man understands the history of the game better than a lot of players born right here in this country,” said Mariners hitting coach Paul Molitor, a Hall of Famer and member of the 3,000-hit club. “I don’t think he gets too caught up in it, but I think he understands that the record is pretty special.”

Suzuki remains a puzzle to many pitchers even after four seasons in the majors.

“Why has nobody been able to figure out Bonds the last few years?” Washburn said. “The great ones you just don’t figure out.”

Suzuki was a huge star in Japan before coming to the majors. He was an immediate hit with the Mariners, becoming the AL MVP and Rookie of the Year in 2001.

He’s an aggressive, free swinger at the plate with an uncanny ability to adjust to a pitch in flight.

“His hands are in a good position, he’s got great bat speed and he keeps the bat head in the zone for a long time,” Molitor said.

Suzuki, close to winning his second AL batting title, goes to the plate knowing where he wants to hit the ball. His speed often helps, as does his skill for angling balls through the infield.

Sisler, a left-hander who could hit for power, set the record in an era when complete games were the rule and hitters could settle in against the same pitcher.

Nowadays, the left-handed Suzuki might see at least three pitchers in as many as five at-bats, including setup men and closers, and he has to hit cutters and split-finger fastballs that weren’t used in Sisler’s day.

“That adds to the accomplishment,” Molitor said. “Guys who can get on base and baserunning and bunting, those things are all overlooked. As a guy who didn’t hit for a lot of power, I have a tremendous appreciation for what I’ve witnessed, the difficulty of it and the consistency.”

Only rarely does Molitor point out flaws in Suzuki’s swing; mostly the hitting coach provides information on opposing pitchers and positive reinforcement.

“Which is a little strange for as much success as he has,” Molitor said. “Not selfishly, but he just likes to hear that he’s doing a hell of a job.”

Suzuki’s pursuit of the hits record is big news in baseball-crazed Japan, as is anything he does.

Suzuki, wife Yumiko and their beloved brown-and-white Shiba dog spend part of the offseason in Seattle to escape the intense scrutiny he faces at home. He can move freely around Seattle, going shopping, golfing or walking the dog without a crush of fans clamoring for autographs and photos.

“To him, it’s a big thing that he can go and walk around,” said teammate Shigetoshi Hasegawa, who played with Suzuki for the Orix Blue Wave. “In Japan, I didn’t talk to him much because he’s a hero. In the U.S., it’s much easier and the pressure is off a little bit.”

If Suzuki’s favorite rap music is blaring in the clubhouse, Hasegawa said, he’ll start dancing in a rare display of goofiness. Most of the time, his placid face makes it impossible to tell if he’s doing well or struggling.

Suzuki had 243 hits as a rookie with the Mariners.

“The first year, I thought, ‘What a year it was,”‘ he said. “I never in my wildest dreams thought I could do the same things in the majors that I did in Japan.”