Ichiro might be pressing as record nears

Ichiro pressing as record nears

ARLINGTON -- The last time Ichiro Suzuki broke a long-standing Major League record, the final leg of the journey was so routine there was no indication whatsoever pressure was an issue.

The Mariners right fielder ended the 2004 season on a 13-game hitting streak, setting a single-season hit record along the way. Ichiro's record-breaking 258th hit came against the Rangers at Safeco Field during the 11th game of the streak.

The last hot streak of Ichiro's record-breaking season started on Sept. 20, when he went 2-for-4 in the series opener against the Angels in Anaheim. He went 5-for-5 the following game and 4-for-6 in the series finale, going 11-for-15 overall.

The hits kept coming, one after another, and Ichiro finished with 262 hits in all, erasing a record Hall of Fame first baseman George Sisler had held for 84 years.

Five years later, Ichiro is chasing down a 108-year-old record held by another Hall of Famer -- outfielder Willie Keeler. And it has been a bit of a struggle lately, although he got a break -- physically and mentally -- with Friday's rainout in Texas.

When the Mariners opened a three-game series against the Angels in Anaheim on Tuesday night, Ichiro needed five hits to become the first player in MLB history to have nine consecutive 200-hit seasons.

He went 1-for-14 in the three-game series.

What in the world happened?

Ichiro was speechless after the second and third games of the series, opting not to discuss the games with the media. That, in itself, was unusual as he almost always talks to the Japanese press following games -- win or lose.

But he told the Japanese media through his interpreter on Friday that he would not be interviewed until he gets his 200th hit.

The Angels series showed signs that Ichiro was starting to press, swinging at pitches in the dirt and looking more unlike Ichiro than at any time this season.

"When you look at the last series, the numbers suggest that," manager Don Wakamatsu said on Friday when asked if Ichiro was pressing. "I think it's a tough situation for anybody. It obviously is something that has been on his mind since the 200-hit seasons started to accumulate, and I think when you get closer to [the record], anyone would want to get it over with."

And even having experienced this sort of situation previously, when he chased Sisler's record, Ichiro appears to be affected a whole lot more by this pursuit of big league history.

He has struck out in a career-high six consecutive games and is 1-for-17 since reaching the 2,000-hit mark in his MLB career.

"It is something no one has done in this game," Wakamatsu said. "How many years have we played this game? We may never see anyone come this close to it again. It's a heck of a record and understandable if he is [pressing]."

That said, Wakamatsu still isn't sure if it was Ichiro's mind-set, or the Angels' pitching, that was most responsible for the almost-hitless-in-Anaheim series.

"He's so strong mentally, it's hard to question him," the manager said. "But we saw something we don't normally see. I thought [John] Lackey made some good pitches on [Ichiro], especially the first two at-bats [strikeouts]."

Ichiro looked awkward on both strikeout pitches -- breaking balls into the dirt.

But taking awkward swings are not uncommon.

"You look at some of his hits and half the time he's off-balance anyway," Wakamatsu said.

Not that health was a factor, but Ichiro recently missed eight games because of sore left calf. And he is 35 years old.

"I talked to him [on Friday], not so much about that [Angels series], but how he feels," Wakamatsu said. "We didn't get here until 5 a.m., and him coming back after having the injury. I just wanted to make sure he's feeling OK.

"It's hard to tell if he's tired or just had a bad series."

Wakamatsu said he didn't ask Ichiro if he wanted to skip Friday night's game, but the answer undoubtedly would have been "no way." Friday's rainout in Arlington gave Ichiro an unexpected night off anyway.

"I would like, just as much as anybody, to see him get the record over with so he can move on to other ones," he added.

Jim Street is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.