ARLINGTON, Texas — The one thing Ichiro and the guy whose record he just toppled had in common was proving that size didn’t matter.
Wee Willie Keeler stood somewhere between 5-foot-4 and 5-7 and weighed a scant 140 pounds when racking up hits at the turn of the last century. Ichiro checks in at 5-11 and roughly 170 pounds if you throw in his batting helmet and spikes, a relative Keeler prototype in this era of enhanced weight training by his peers.
They both used some of the smallest bats in the game and the size of their hits was equally diminutive, measured not in feet, but in cumulative totals stacked up over time. It seemed somewhat fitting then that the Mariners leadoff man would set a record with his 200th hit, in the second inning of a 5-0 win Sunday night over the Texas Rangers, on a ball that didn’t leave the infield.
Ichiro has turned such a trick before; 453 times to be exact during his now-record nine consecutive seasons of 200 hits or more. He hit a slow grounder to charging Rangers shortstop Elvis Andrus, who gloved it, then wisely held on.
The sparse crowd at Rangers Ballpark gave Ichiro a rousing ovation after sticking around for the second game after a Rangers’ 7-2 win.
This milestone allows Ichiro to finally step from the shadow he shared with Keeler, whose eight-straight such campaigns ruled the baseball roost for more than a century.
Keeler pioneered the “Baltimore Chop,” pounding balls into the ground so hard that he’d make it to first base by the time infielders could glove the high choppers. Baseball officials never altered the rule book for Ichiro the way they did to limit Keeler’s effectiveness, but Ichiro did cause profound defensive strategy changes by opponents trying to counter his trademark grounders to short.
In the end, neither man was shut down.
Ichiro’s record-setting hit helped Felix Hernandez on a night he notched his career-high 15th win and lowered his earned-run average from 2.61 to 2.52 with seven scoreless innings in his Cy Young Award quest. Adrian Beltre also hit a two-run homer to help Hernandez and the Mariners put a winning finish on a day that didn’t begin that way.
The Mariners waited through a series of delays before launching the doubleheader. Ichiro got the first of the two hits he’d need, taking a page from Hall-of-Famer Keeler’s “Hit ’em where they ain’t” credo with an opposite field double just beyond the reach of left fielder Julio Borbon in the third inning.
But the Rangers hit three home runs, two off Doug Fister, to drive the Mariners starter from the game after 42/3 innings.
“For me, the key is location and keeping the ball down and when it doesn’t happen I get results similar to this,” Fister said. “And so, it continues to create a new focus. I’ve got to keep the ball down.”
Seattle mustered only six hits, two in the ninth inning, off Texas rookie Tommy Hunter, who tossed his first career complete game.
Ichiro grounded out to lead off the second game, but took care of the record his second time up against Derek Holland.
It was somewhat fitting that Ichiro should reach this latest milestone, a testament to his strict stretching and fitness regimen, in a season that has tested his stamina like few others.
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