More so than perhaps anyone playing the game today, Seattle Mariners right fielder Ichiro Suzuki can hit a baseball anywhere he chooses. His batting practice sessions are legendary for producing streams of effortless, tape-measure homers. On a certain type of inside fastball, he can flick his wrists and flip the ball over the third baseman's head, often resulting in a double. If an infielder is playing too far back, he can hit a chopper and beat it out without so much as a throw.
But what Ichiro is choosing to do this season, especially the last few months, is to hit singles, lots and lots of singles. As a result, he is quickly approaching one of baseball's most enduring but strangely unheralded records: George Sisler's 84-year-old mark of 257 hits. Entering Sunday, he needed 21 hits in Seattle's final 14 games to match the record.
A major league-record 200 of Ichiro's 236 hits this season have been singles -- which, along with the Mariners' dismal offense, helps explain how he has driven in only 55 runs despite a .369 batting average. For all his success, he is one-dimensional at the plate: He has walked only 43 times, shockingly low for a leadoff man, and his 293 total bases do not even rank in the top 10 in baseball.
(By contrast, Sisler, a Hall of Famer, had 399 total bases, a record at the time, during that 1920 season while driving in 122 runs. A vastly underappreciated player, Sisler hit .420 in 1922, and it was his 41-game hitting streak that Joe DiMaggio broke in 1941.) Ichiro's pursuit of Sisler's record has created some excitement in an otherwise dreary season for the last-place Mariners. But it has also created some rancor.
In consecutive games last week, Ichiro bunted with a runner at second base and two outs -- a situation where a base hit to the outfield might have yielded a run -- causing some grumbling from his teammates.
"He's basically just trying for singles, even more than in the past," said one scout from an American League team who has seen the Mariners frequently this season. "It's just, 'Make contact and run, no matter the situation.' It strikes me as very selfish."
Ichiro is the only player in the last 73 years to come within 15 hits of Sisler's record, but when he amassed 242 hits as a rookie in 2001 he could still be pitched to. Back then, he was vulnerable to inside fastballs, a weakness the New York Yankees exploited in holding him to 4 for 18 in the 2001 playoffs.
But content to bloop, chop, flick or slice his way on base these days, Ichiro has turned those inside fastballs into base hits.
"There's really no way to pitch him if he's up there with the mentality of getting singles," the AL scout said. "Give him credit for that. He has the bat control to be successful at what he does. There's no one else like him."
What is perhaps most amazing about Ichiro's run is that he was hitting only .255 at the end of April, with scouts reporting at the time that he looked lethargic. In fact, the Mariners were merely trying to get him to be more selective at the plate, in hopes of drawing more walks. After abandoning that strategy, Ichiro is hitting an astounding .391 since May 1.
With a 26-point lead over Baltimore's Melvin Mora entering the weekend, Ichiro is virtually ensured of winning the batting title. But as batting champs go, he is no Barry Bonds (the runaway NL champ). And for that matter, he is no George Sisler.
Concern Over A's Aces
For the last few years, the Oakland Athletics have been one of those teams nobody relished facing in the postseason, because of their three-aces-deep rotation of Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson and Barry Zito.
However, the A's have endured a couple of awful trips through their rotation in recent weeks, leaving them vulnerable of being caught and passed in the AL West by the Anaheim Angels, who trail them by only two games entering Sunday.And even if the A's make it, that rotation no longer appears so intimidating.
Of chief concern is the lefty Mulder, who only a couple of months ago appeared to be the Cy Young Award front-runner. After an eight-run beating at the hands of the Texas Rangers on Wednesday -- in which his fastball topped out at 90 mph, a few clicks off his usual heat -- some A's executives began wondering privately if Mulder is healthy, although he insists he is. Mulder has pitched to a 7.27 ERA in his last four starts.
"There are some concerns at times when you have someone who's pitched as well as he has and then not done as well," A's Manager Ken Macha told reporters this week. "But I trust Mark 100 percent."
There is some talk now that the A's might start right-hander Rich Harden -- their clear-cut number four starter in terms of stature, but their number one in terms of effectiveness the last few weeks -- in Game 1 of the Division Series, should they make it.
Marlins' Hopes Getting Blown Away
The Florida Marlins may have seen their postseason hopes wiped out by the vagaries of an unusually active hurricane season in their state. They were swept in a doubleheader (one of three they must play in an 11-day span this month) by the Montreal Expos, then were forced to play a pair of home games at Chicago's U.S. Cellular Field.
"For what we're trying to accomplish right now, a push for the wild-card berth," veteran outfielder Jeff Conine said, "it couldn't be any more chaotic than this month has." . . .
If rotation depth is the key in October, where does that leave the Atlanta Braves?
Presumed Game 1 starter Russ Ortiz is 1-2 with a 7.28 ERA in his last four starts. Lefty Mike Hampton is trying to pitch with torn cartilage in his knee that will require surgery after the season. And flame-throwing rookie Jose Capellan, whom the Braves were hoping to be a secret weapon in October, was torched for seven runs in an inning of work Thursday against the New York Mets. All of a sudden reclamation project Jaret Wright could be their top starter.