Yankees right fielder Ichiro Suzuki waves to the crowd after recording his career 4000th hit during the first inning against the Toronto Blue Jays at Yankee Stadium.(Photo: Debby Wong, USA TODAY Sports)
NEW YORK - The infield was in because it often has to be against one of the game's great small-ball players. There was no defensive shift because there was no telling which way the ball might go.
For Ichiro Suzuki, career hit. No. 4,000 came with familiar unpredictability. He simply found a way to get it done, this time with a soft line drive in the first inning of Wednesday night's 4-2 Yankees win against the Blue Jays at Yankee Stadium.
It wasn't until the eighth inning that the game was won on a two-out, two-run home run by Alfonso Soriano, giving the Yankees their 10th win in 13 games on the same day that Ichiro reached a rather obscure milestone by hitting an opposite-field single past diving third baseman Brett Lawrie.
"It was supposed to be a number that was special to me, but what happened tonight, I wasn't expecting," Ichiro said.
Combining his major-league and Pacific League (Japan) totals, Ichiro became the third player in baseball history to reach 4,000 hits in any country's top level of professional baseball, and the game was delayed while the Yankees poured out of the dugout to congratulate him on the field. A video message from former teammate Ken Griffey Jr. also played on the scoreboard.
"At first I was trying to stop (the players) from coming," Ichiro said. "But it was just because I was so happy and overjoyed with the way they supported me. ... When I look back on this, that's what's going to make this very special."
While the Yankees are known for their power hitters - and while they needed a home run from an often all-or-nothing slugger like Soriano to continue their hot streak - Ichiro has reached 4,000 hits with a diverse mix of infield singles, hard line drives, and occasionally surprising power for such a small, wiry player.
"Anything that I get a hit with is going to be Ichiro-like," he said.
A combined hit total is hard to put in perspective. Only two major-leaguers - Pete Rose and Ty Cobb - have ever reached 4,000 hits, but clearly Ichiro's is a different sort of milestone. ESPN's researchers reported that only five players - Rose, Cobb, Stan Musial, Hank Aaron and little-known Jigger Statz - have reached 4,000 by combining major-league and minor-league hit totals.
Derek Jeter presents a convenient comparison because he's the same age as Ichiro and started his minor-league career in the same year that Ichiro debuted in Japan. Jeter has 3,859 hits combining his big-league total with his minor-league total, leaving him short of Ichiro's 4,000 plateau. Of course, Jeter has missed most of this season due to injuries.
"I didn't have 4,000 hits in my whole career and you can go back to T-ball," manager Joe Girardi said. "To me it's an unbelievable feat, and he's some kind of hitter."
The milestone - and Ichiro's stunned reaction to Yankee Stadium's celebration - provided a sideshow highlight to another win for a team that's suddenly surging and now sits four games out of the second wild-card spot.
"I realized today is that the Yankees are so used to things like this happening that they're so good at ceremonies like this," Ichiro said.
They're used to making the playoffs too, and with milestones and big home runs, they're creeping closer.