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The Other Hit Record

Suzuki's 236 hits, including 200 singles, are on pace for Sisler's top of the charts.

September 20, 2004|Mike DiGiovanna | Times Staff Writer

SEATTLE — Faster from home to first base than a speeding bullet, able to leap tall outfield walls in a single bound, look, out in right field, it's

The Superman analogy might be a stretch for Seattle Mariner right fielder Ichiro Suzuki, who is trying to break one of baseball's oldest and least-known records, George Sisler's single-season mark of 257 hits, set in 1920 for the St. Louis Browns.

Or is it?

What Suzuki has done this season, especially in July and August, has almost defied baseball logic, shifting the statistical paradigm in which players are measured and viewed.

Impossible to hit .400, you say? After a sluggish April, in which he hit .255 and had 26 hits, Suzuki hit .396 over the next four months, including a torrid July, in which he hit .432 and a scorching August, in which he hit .463. He's hitting .365 this season, and his 56 hits in August were the most in a month since 1936.

Nearly impossible to break Sisler's 84-year-old record? Suzuki enters tonight's game against the Angels with 236 hits and 13 more games to collect the 22 hits needed to set the mark. At his current pace, 1.6 hits a game, he would finish with 257 hits.

Suzuki has 898 hits in his first four years, the most in a four-year span since the end of World War II, and is on pace to set the record for most hits over any four-year span, Bill Terry's 918 hits from 1929 to 1932.

Impossible to alter the game if you can't hit 60 homers a year or mash the ball 500 feet? No one puts more pressure on a defense than Suzuki, the 5-foot-9, 172-pound whip of a player whose combination of hand-eye coordination and explosiveness out of the box has helped him amass a major league-leading 50 infield hits.

"There is absolutely no margin for error on the fielder's part," Angel bench coach Joe Maddon said. "You have to cheat in on him because if he gets the ball to bounce an extra time, it's almost impossible to get him. He's perfected the ability to run and hit at the same time. He gives new meaning to the term hit and run."

Suzuki is a singular sensation -- of his 236 hits, 200 are singles, the most since Lloyd Waner had 198 singles for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1927.

But what Suzuki lacks in power (he has eight home runs) and patience (45 walks), he more than compensates for with bat control, plate coverage, an ability to hit line drives and guide grounders through holes, and sheer speed -- his times from home to first are routinely in the 3.7-second range, 3.4 seconds on bunts.

"It's amazing to think he had 26 hits in April and is making a run at this record," Angel first baseman Darin Erstad said. "It's remarkable."

Erstad should know. He was on pace to break Sisler's record in 2000 before injuries slowed him in September. He finished with 240 hits, batting .355 with 25 home runs, 100 runs batted, 121 runs and 39 doubles in one of the most prolific seasons in franchise history.

"You've got to get a lot of breaks, a lot of infield hits, and you can't take at-bats off," Erstad said, when asked how Sisler's record could be broken. "That's one of the hardest things to do in the game, and he's found that happy place of going up there and taking good swing after good swing."

Safeco Field has not been a happy place this season; the Mariners, expected to contend for the playoffs, are in last place in the American League West, 31 games behind Oakland.

But through all of the injuries and losses, the slumps and frustration, the departures -- first baseman John Olerud and shortstop Rich Aurilia are gone, and designated hitter Edgar Martinez recently announced he would retire after the season -- Suzuki's focus and concentration have not wavered.

"He's on a mission to get that record," Mariner second baseman Bret Boone said. "You're a professional, you've got to have pride in what you do. Everyone gives at-bats away here and there, and you kick yourself when you do, but that hasn't happened too often with Ichiro."

Suzuki has been the lone bright spot in Seattle, a reason for fans to come to the park.

"You don't often get a chance to see history in this game," said Paul Molitor, a Hall of Fame player and Seattle's batting instructor. "Certain records that have stood for a long time are being threatened, and it makes it pretty special. Having a chance to watch his season unfold ... it's been one of our few highlights, to be honest."

The fans have helped motivate the four-time All-Star.

"There is always pressure to do well -- it doesn't matter if it's the first hit, the 10th hit or the 200th hit, the first at-bat of the year or the 700th at-bat of the year," Suzuki said through an interpreter. "It doesn't matter who you are. When you get on the field, there's always going to be pressure."

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