NEW YORK -- The key to Ichiro Suzuki's seventh hit on Wednesday was taking the same approach to home plate that he did for each of his earlier at-bats in the Yankees' doubleheader with the Blue Jays, he said. But with "Ich-i-ro" chants echoing throughout Yankee Stadium, a tied game in the eighth inning and sole possession of first place in the American League East on the line, Ichiro knew this at-bat was the very reason he arrived in New York via a midseason trade.
"When you're in a pennant race, you don't really have to focus," Ichiro said. "This whole atmosphere makes you focus. That's kind of the difference that I've felt. This atmosphere creates this natural way of making you focus more. That's what I've felt."
Ichiro felt it often on Wednesday, never more than when he drove in the go-ahead run in the nightcap, helping to lift New York to a 2-1 win over Toronto hours after a 4-2 afternoon victory. The two wins, coupled with Baltimore's 3-1 win at Seattle in 11 innings, gave the Yankees a half-game lead in the American League East entering their series finale on Thursday night.
The Yankees said they believed that placing Ichiro back in a pennant race would rejuvenate the 38-year-old when they acquired him from the Mariners in July. He is 52-for-164 (.317) since then, helping his new team after seeing his average dip below .300 for the first time over the previous year and a half as a member of the Mariners, who last reached the postseason in 2001.
Ichiro's 7-for-8 showing in the day-night doubleheader proved it.
"I really feel like he's kind of found his niche here, and you saw today -- when he gets rolling, it's hard to stop him," said teammate Nick Swisher. "It feels like he's hitting the ball everywhere -- left-field line, right-field line, left-center, right-center. He's doing a good job, man. I'm glad we picked him up."
Ichiro scored two runs in New York's matinee win, leading off in place of Derek Jeter and going 3-for-4 to set the table. He recorded a hit in each of his four at-bats in the nightcap and twice stole second and third base, but his teammates stranded him there every time.
Ichiro nearly had a second-inning RBI, but Blue Jays center fielder Colby Rasmus came up throwing on a second-inning single and beat Jayson Nix to the plate.
The run would have given New York a lead to work with all game, but instead, the Yankees consistently stranded runners, playing with a 1-1 tie from the second inning until Ichiro slapped an Aaron Loup fastball the opposite way to score Curtis Granderson for the go-ahead run in the eighth.
"He's a talented player, obviously, a Hall of Fame-type player," Blue Jays manager John Farrell said of Ichiro. "He seems to have a flair for the dramatic, and that was the case again today."
Ichiro is no longer the everyday player he was with the Mariners, with whom he recorded 200-hit seasons for the first 10 years of his Major League career. Instead, manager Joe Girardi prefers to platoon the left-handed hitter, playing matchup games and believing days off benefit the outfielder's productivity.
But for the nightcap, Girardi penciled the left-handed-hitting Ichiro into the eight-hole in the lineup against lefty starter Ricky Romero, against whom Ichiro entered the game hitting .360 (9-for-25).
It broke the mold of the preferred lefty-righty matchup, but Girardi noted that left-handers sometimes hit better against Romero, and Ichiro's effort in the afternoon game made it difficult to sit him.
Each starter worked through command issues early, with New York's David Phelps walking three batters before departing with the bases loaded in the seventh and Romero walking five batters in his six innings. But Romero, who entered the game with an 0-13 record and an 8.40 ERA in his past 14 starts, offered an exercise in escaping trouble, stranding nine Yankees and allowing only one run on a Chris Stewart double in the second.
The hit knotted the score after the Blue Jays scored against Phelps in the top of the frame, taking advantage of a pair of walks with an RBI single from Adeiny Hechavarria before the rookie right-hander settled down and started to throw strikes.
"He pitched an outstanding game," Girardi said of Phelps. "The run he gave up was the byproduct of a couple walks, but after that, he settled down extremely well."
Phelps provided much-needed length for the Yankees after they used six relievers in the matinee with starter Andy Pettitte on a pitch count. Boone Logan and Cody Eppley bridged the gap to Rafael Soriano, who recorded his 42nd save of the season and second in a span of about six hours.
But even after Soriano untucked his jersey on the Yankee Stadium mound after the game's final out, "Ich-i-ro" heard his name chanted throughout the Bronx.
"I came in in the middle of the season, and I always just wanted to contribute, wanted to be able to help in this pennant race," Ichiro said. "Today was a great day that I was able to help and do what I can to help the team."
Steven Miller is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.