If it’s mid-September, it must be time to wonder how close the Mariners’ Ichiro Suzuki is to his annual 200 hits.
The answer, heading into this weekend’s series against American League West leader Texas is close 11 hits to be exact.
If/when he gets there, Ichiro would be the only player in Major League history to record 200 or more hits 10 years in succession.
Important as hits are to all batters, for Ichiro, the 2001 Most Valuable Player, they are a larger matter. He was a rookie that year and his 242 hits dazzled American eyes that weren’t accustomed to such productivity. He joined the Seattle Mariners after leaving the Orix Blue Wave, becoming the first position player to make the jump from Japan to the big leagues.
Many players don’t have a problem talking about hits, but for Ichiro it can be the equivalent of root canal, at least when the number 200 is involved. It’s not so bad in the middle of the season when the milestone is a long way off. When the goal nears, too many people want to talk about hits.
At least three members of the Seattle media wanting to talk in the last week or so have been told that Ichiro isn’t eager to chat.
He did talk, if briefly, with me in early September about 200, but it was clear that this was far from his favorite subject. He likes the numbers to speak for themselves.
“It’s not time to be talking about 200 hits,” Ichiro said through his interpreter, Antony Suzuki (no relation). “It’s not close enough yet.”
Is he thinking about 200 and what it will take to get there?
“It’s not the time for that, either,” he said.
Well, it’s reasonably close. He seems a lock to make it 10-for-10, because he’s always averaged way more than one hit per game played. His average of 1.41 hits per game is better than any of the top five hits producers in history only Ty Cobb (1.38) is close.
Ichiro generally blows past the 200 in early to mid-September. That’s when he’s racking up 220 or more hits, which he’s done five times. But when it’s more down to the wire, Ichiro internalizes the pressure.
That was certainly the case in 2003. He finished with 212 hits that year, his third in the the majors, but after back-to-back 200-hit seasons he found himself expected to get to 200. He lost 26 points on his batting average in the season’s final six weeks and after the season talked about what that felt like.
“I had never experienced such pressure,” he said after the final game of the season. “Sometimes I felt nauseated, sick. Sometimes I felt short of breath.”
That’s not to say that Ichiro is feeling that now. Part of the pressure was taken off by his 225-hit season in 2009, which moved him past Wee Willie Keeler as the only man to have nine consecutive 200-hit seasons. That was a record he wanted badly.
There is presumably less pressure to get to 200 hits this year even though he would tie all-time hits leader Pete Rose, who set the standard with 10 200-hit seasons. Rose, however, did it over 15 years.
Even so, the expectations haven’t changed for Ichiro over the years. He’s supposed to get 200 hits the way Mariano Rivera is supposed to close out the ninth inning.
One can only guess that he’ll be relieved when puts 200 behind him for the 10th time.
Then it’s time to talk.
John Hickey is a Senior MLB Writer for AOL FanHouse (www.fanhouse.com)