Ichiro is sizzling in Arizona

Monday, March 28, 2005

PEORIA, Ariz. -- Ichiro Suzuki is at it again.

Sure, it's only spring training, but Seattle's star outfielder is slapping the ball silly. He was leading the Cactus League with a .531 average and 26 hits -- best in the majors -- going into the weekend.

With a sixth-inning triple Friday against Kansas City, Suzuki stretched his hitting streak to all 15 of his spring games, tying a Mariners record set by Ken Griffey Jr. in 1989.

After a historic season last year, when Suzuki broke an 84-year-old major league record with 262 hits, fans on both sides of the Pacific Ocean are eager to see what he'll do for a follow-up.

Can he become the first .400 hitter since Ted Williams batted .406 in 1941? Maybe he can challenge Joe DiMaggio's record 56-game hitting streak set that year. Suzuki was jokingly asked if he can hit in all 162 games.

"If that happens, I'll quit baseball," he said through a translator, returning serve with a playful laugh.

Not only did Suzuki make history with 262 hits in 2004, breaking George Sisler's 1920 mark, but his 46-hit margin over runner-up Michael Young of Texas (216) was the largest difference ever.

Suzuki became the first player with at least 200 hits in each of his first four seasons, and his 924 hits from 2001-04 set another major league mark for a four-year stretch. His 225 singles were also a record.

Oh, and he hit .372 for his second American League batting title.

So what's next? Unfortunately for the curious, it goes against Suzuki's nature to dive into forecasts.

"Those things occur so far ahead, and I really can't see that far ahead," he said. "I've really got to focus on what I'm doing right now. Of course, as a hitter, you want to get hits. There are ways of getting hits.

"That's the fun part," he added. "Every at-bat is different."

But what about a .400 season?

Suzuki won't touch the question, explaining that he's only committed to what's immediate. He'll allow, however, that his strong hitting stems from minor changes he made last July -- widening his stance slightly to about 16 inches.

It's vintage Suzuki, as his new manager has found.

"His hand-eye coordination is great," Mike Hargrove said. "But probably the biggest thing Ichiro does is he knows himself. He stays within his boundaries. I don't know if I've ever run across a more disciplined hitter."

If anyone today could challenge DiMaggio's 56-game streak, then, you'd have to think it would be Suzuki. Too bad Suzuki doesn't share that belief.

"A 56-game hitting streak? I don't think of that, not at all," he said. "I don't even think I've reached halfway there."

Just how good is Suzuki right now?

He's within reach of spring training club records for batting average (.491, Edgar Martinez, 1996) and hits (35, Carlos Guillen, 1999). After a 2-for-4 night against the Angels last week, Suzuki's average actually dropped -- from .579 to .571.

He even drew an intentional walk -- rare in spring games. Seattle led Milwaukee 2-0 with one out and runners on the corners Thursday when Brewers manager Ned Yost decided it was safer to take the bat out of Suzuki's hands.

"You just can't bad-pitch around him," Yost said. "I know it's only spring training, but if you try to bad-pitch around him, he'll slap it through a hole and all of a sudden it's 3-0."

On Friday, Kansas City lefty Brian Anderson fanned Suzuki on a check swing, his first strikeout in 50 plate appearances this spring. Any hitter probably would take that kind of ratio.

Not Suzuki.

"When you get a bad result, of course you're disappointed," he said.

Don't forget that Suzuki, after all, set a Japanese League record in 1997 with 216 plate appearances before striking out.

"But I wasn't too happy to do that," he said.

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