TORONTO — Finally unburdened of the expectations of yet another 200-hit season, Ichiro was able to smile after Thursdays game, where he had a double and a single to become the first player in major league history to record 200 hits in 10 consecutive seasons.
Of course, he would have been able to wear a bigger smile if his 200th hit hadnt come in yet another Seattle loss. And he would have been able to smile more if No. 200 hadnt come in a game hard-luck pitcher Felix Hernandez hadnt lost 1-0.
Hernandez is used to it four times the Mariners have been shut out in his starts and in 15 times his club has scored two runs or less.
So Hernandez wore a big smile when he walked across the visitors clubhouse in Rogers Center, extended his hand and offered a hearty “Congratulations.
That was the capper for Ichiro, who received a standing ovation from much of the crowd while the entire Mariner roster stood on the top step of the dugout after his fifth-inning single got him to 200.
Its been a tough year for everybody Hernandez and Ichiro have risen above it, for the most part but even they have suffered as the Mariners have spent most of the season finding new, strange ways to avoid runs and wins. Ichiro wasnt sure how his teammates would react.
Two years ago, in the 101-loss season of 2008, there was so much sniping and backbiting in the Seattle clubhouse, Ichiro found that some of his teammates werent all that happy for him. Not so this time, even though the losing is as bad 94 losses with 10 games left.
“This year was tough because of the season weve had, and I couldnt help remembering 2008, Ichiro said. “The team is not the same, the results are. When I looked over to the dugout and saw my teammates were happy for me, it was a great relief.
With his 200 hits, Ichiro became the only American League player ever with 10 200-hit seasons, surpassing the nine of Ty Cobb. Hes tied with Pete Rose, who had 10 200-hit seasons in the National League. But neither Cobb or Rose did it consecutively.
Nor did either do it in their first 10 seasons. The record for consecutive seasons with 200 or more hits belonged to Wee Willie Keeler, who played a century ago, before Ichiro tied him in 2008.
When Ichiro came to Seattle as the first Japanese position player in MLB, he was an unknown quantity. Lou Piniella, the Seattle manager, said he thought Ichiro would acquit himself well if he hit .280 or .290. Instead, Ichiro pounded out 242 hits, hit .350 and was Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player.
Asked to compare his first year with the Mariners to his current season, Ichiro couldnt help but laugh.
“In 2001, no one expected 200 hits from me, he said. “If Id had 168 hits, theyd have said `Good job. Now, in my shoes, its expected each year.
“Im very happy to have made people feel that way.
Still, the expectations are huge. For a man with a relatively small frame, he has had to develop broad shoulders to carry those expectations, expectations that grow larger from year to year.
The one run Felix gave up Thursday was Jose Bautistas 50th homer, the most in the big leagues this year and by far the best in his career.
As prestigious as that number is, Bautista spent much of the post-game marveling at what hed seen from Ichiro.
“Its unbelievable, Bautista said. “Fortunately, I got to witness (the 200th hit). Hes a great hitter great hand-eye coordination. He can barrel balls in and out just like Vladimir Guerrero, and hes got the speed element to go with it. Hes just a great hitter.
“He has a nice swing. He keeps it in the zone a lot, and the most amazing thing to me is he actually starts running before hes done with his swing. To have the ability to swing and run at the same time, to me, is just amazing.
Bautistas teammate, Vernon Wells, said being on hand for Bautistas 50th and Ichiros 200th was a fine moment.
“Its obviously a pretty historic game, Wells said. “Ichiro is pretty much the staple of consistency. For Jose, its pretty neat to watch one of your teammates hit 50 home runs in a season.
It wasnt neat for Hernandez, who fell to 12-12 despite leading the American League in ERA (2.31), innings (241.2) and strikeouts (227). The number of ways the Mariners have failed to score for him would make a first-rate nightmare.
“One pitch, one home run, that was it, Hernandez said. “I fell behind him, he fouled off a couple of good pitches. Hes locked in 50 home runs? After that, I cant do much more.
Hernandez would only allow one more hit en route to his sixth complete game. But the Mariners lineup, while getting seven hits, was heavy on rookies. They didnt have what it took on this day to get even one run against Shawn Hill and the Toronto bullpen.
“If you get Felix one, two runs you can win a game, rookie outfielder Michael Saunders said. “He cant win without a run and we didnt get him one.
John Hickey is a Senior MLB Writer for AOL FanHouse (www.fanhouse.com)