Bautista, Ichiro reach milestones; Jays edge Mariners

The Canadian Press
9/23/2010 5:43:09 PM
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TORONTO -- Jose Bautista swings the bat with all his might, turning on pitches with a brute force that sends scorching line drives hundreds of feet away.

Ichiro Suzuki swings the bat like a tennis racket, angling pitches to open spots on the baseball diamond.

On Thursday afternoon, before a sparse gathering of 12,590 at the Rogers Centre, the two vastly different right-fielders each reached rare and significant milestones.

Bautista became just the 26th player to ever reach the 50-homer plateau with a solo shot in the first inning to provide the difference in the Toronto Blue Jays' 1-0 victory over the Seattle Mariners. Later, Suzuki joined him in the spotlight as the first player ever with 10 consecutive 200-hit seasons, thanks to a double in the third and a single in the fifth.

"Quite a day," understated Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston, "a day I'll always remember."

Their paths to history are as contrasting as their styles.

Suzuki was a star in Japan who signed for big money with Seattle to come to North America and conquer the big leagues in 2001. Bautista, on the other hand, was on the verge of a journeyman's career after the Pittsburgh Pirates gave up on him 2008, but found a rebirth in Toronto.

"I came to this organization in a critical point of my career, I needed another chance and I found it here," said Bautista. "Maybe not right away, but eventually. Ever since I got here, they told me that they believe in my ability and I believed in myself as well.

"That, and the changes I made in the approach and the swing ultimately led to the success."

While Bautista is comfortable in the spotlight, Suzuki is not, reluctant to do interviews despite the cumbersome horde of Japanese media that follows his every move. He joins Pete Rose as the only players with 10 seasons of 200 or more hits, although the all-time hits leader needed 14 years to get it done.

"I don't know Pete Rose very much as a human being and as a player I've never actually seen him with my own eyes," Suzuki replied through an interpreter when asked about being tied to Rose in the record books.

"I guess I can say I don't care."

Their feats far overshadowed a crisp, well-pitched ball game, with Shawn Hill of Georgetown, Ont., outduelling Cy Young Award candidate Felix Hernandez.

Hill (1-2), working his way back from a second elbow-ligament replacement surgery, earned his first win since April 10, 2009 with five shutout innings and a career-high tying seven strikeouts. Four relievers, including Kevin Gregg in the ninth for his 35th save, helped lock down the win for the Blue Jays (77-75) over the Mariners (58-94).

Hernandez (12-12) made only one major mistake -- No. 50 for Bautista -- in eight innings of two-hit ball. He walked four and struck out five.

Bautista, putting the finishing touches on one of the best offensive seasons in Blue Jays history, sent a 2-1 fastball clocked at 96 m.p.h., high into the air and into the left-field bullpen. The crowd gave him a lengthy standing ovation, and didn't let up until he came out for a curtain call.

"It wasn't the best swing but I hit it on the barrel and good enough for it to go out," said Bautista. "It was a great feeling to know I got it over with, I know a lot of people were waiting for it, probably more than me. I'm just really happy and proud that I accomplished it."

The 29-year-old, who had just 13 home runs last season and a career-high of 16 set in 2006, is the first player to reach the plateau since Alex Rodriguez (54) and Prince Fielder (50) in 2007. Having made a mechanical adjustment last summer to quicken his timing at the plate, Bautista has been able to leverage his raw line-drive power by making more regular contact with the ball.

He is also thinking the game better than ever before.

"Being ready on time has allowed me to see the ball better, I've laid off some bad pitches which has led to some hitting counts," said Bautista. "I'm not Barry Bonds, they're not going to walk me every time I go up to the plate, they're going to try to challenge me.

"I've gotten myself in position to succeed and I've taken advantage."

His memorable season includes seven multi-home run games, 23 solo shots, 20 two-run blasts, six three-run drives and one grand slam. He broke George Bell's club record of 47 last Friday in Boston against Michael Bowden, and added No. 49 the next day off Josh Beckett.

"I think the big key with Bautista, and I've said this day in and day out, he's coachable," said Gaston. "Any time you're coachable, you have a chance to improve and get better."

Bautista's year-to-year increase in home runs of 37 is the second largest in baseball history according to Stats Inc. Davey Johnson upped his total by 38 from 1972-73, going from five to 43.

That's caused some to wonder if his transformation was a result of performance-enhancing drugs.

"Absolutely not," he replied when asked if he had ever used them. "I (understand the suspicions), because of what happened in the past. Those days are gone. ...

"I just have to deal with it and I have all season long. I'm not going to back down from any questions, I have nothing to hide, so I'm not worried."

Suzuki was given a standing ovation of his own in the fifth inning, after his line-drive single up the middle off Hill gave him his own piece of baseball history.

Suzuki now also has more 200-hit seasons than any player in American League history, moving past Detroit's Ty Cobb. The 36-year-old leads the majors in hits, something he has done in each of the past four seasons, and six times in his 10-year big-league career.

"Mentally it's totally different," he said when asked if he appreciated 200 hits more now than as a rookie. "When you look at my rookie year no one expected me to hit 200-plus hits, I would think if I were at .260-.270 with 168 hits, they would say nice job. Now being in my shoes you have to accomplish it. If I don't people will say you're not hitting anymore. That's a lot of pressure.

"I never took it for granted."

Notes: Catcher J.P. Arencibia says fans shouldn't read too much into the extra work he's been putting in at first and third base of late. "People are taking it out of proportion," said Arencibia. "I've done it in triple-A, I've done it double-A, I've done it everywhere I've gone, it's all about staying athletic. I've always been a very athletic player and that keeps my feet a lot more athletic than if I would be just catching." With Arencibia playing very little this month and the Blue Jays with holes at first and third base, his work with infield guru Brian Butterfield has led to speculation about a future move. Arencibia played some first base in college and at third in the past, and says he'd like to emulate Victor Martinez, the Red Sox catcher who also plays some first. But that's it. "A lot of the time I take ground balls at shortstop, I'm not becoming a shortstop," he said. "It's more movement so I can move further and really work on my lateral movements that will help me ultimately as a catcher." ... The Blue Jays shut down left-fielder Fred Lewis for the season so he can undergo bunion surgery on his left foot. Lewis struggled with the issue earlier this season and had a similar procedure on his right foot in September 2008.

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