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27 September 2010

Ichiro record at risk in Japan; Will Japanese players become petty?

With his sharp single to center  against the Toronto Blue Jays, Ichiro Suzuki  rewrote baseball’s record books — again.

The Thursday hit was his 200th for the season, marking a record 10th consecutive year of reaching that plateau. Since leaving Japan to take his talents across the Pacific to the Seattle Mariners in 2001, Ichiro has reached that milestone every year. He is now tied with all-time hits leader Pete Rose for most seasons with 200 hits.
Predictably, his impressive accomplishment created quite a stir in Japan. Newspapers issued special commemorative editions and Ichiro was the lead item on Japanese morning and midday TV news programs. However, lost amid the fanfare over the speedy outfielder’s latest North American record is that one of his most-famous Japanese records — the single-season hits record — may be under threat by a journeyman American playing in Ichiro’s homeland.
Matt Murton, who is in his first season with Japan after Major League stops with the Chicago Cubs, Oakland Athletics and Colorado Rockies, recorded three hits on Thursday in a 6-1 Hanshin Tigers victory over the Chunichi Dragons. That brought his season total to 201 hits, becoming only the fourth player ever in Nippon Professional Baseball league to top the 200 mark.
In a post-game interview, the 28-year-old Mr. Murton said he was “humbled” by the achievement and that he was thankful for the opportunity to finally showcase his talent in Japan. Mr. Murton, who is hitting .352 with 17 home runs and 85 runs batted in as a lead-off hitter and everyday left fielder for the Tigers, has 10 games left to try to best Ichiro’s record.
Ichiro holds the Japanese record for most hits in a single season with 210, a tally he reached as a baby-faced, 20-year-old outfielder for the Orix Blue Wave.  Not to be outdone, Ichiro got to 210 in 1994 in only 130 games, while Mr. Murton topped 200 in his 134th game. Ichiro also set the Major League single-season record with 262 hits in 2004.
At his current pace of 1.5 hits per game, Mr. Murton is on track to top Ichiro’s Japanese mark with 216 hits but the question remains: will pitchers here pitch to him?
There are past examples of Japanese pitchers refusing to challenge foreign players who are close to breaking Japanese baseball records. The most prominent one involves the single-season home run record of 55 held by Japan’s all-time home run king Sadaharu Oh.
On three occasions in the last 25 years, a foreign player has tied or come close to breaking Mr. Oh’s record — only to face teams managed by Mr. Oh who refused to throw strikes to those players. While it’s possible Mr. Murton may receive the same treatment, he has a few things working in his favor.
Ichiro’s mark, while respected, may not be revered quite like Mr. Oh’s home run record. Also, Ichiro is still playing and there may be less sentimental pressure to protect his record. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Hanshin is in a tight pennant race.
The Tigers are tied for second place in the Central League with the Yomiuri Giants. Both teams are 2.5 games back of first-place Chunichi but Hanshin has 10 games left to play versus three for Chunichi and eight for Yomiuri. It would be hard to imagine Japanese pitchers willing to intentionally walk the lead-off hitter of a team still in the pennant race.
Follow Daisuke Wakabayashi on Twitter @daiwaka

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