As the Wrigley Field stands slowly filled up with fans bundled in Cubbie blue, Seiya Suzuki for the first time watched the ballpark come alive.
He’d visited Wrigley three weeks earlier, on a quick trip to Chicago before he signed a five-year, $85 million contract with the Cubs.
Opening Day, even in 44 degree weather, was something else entirely.Suzuki had expected to be nervous.
“It was actually really fun,” Suzuki said through interpreter Toy Matsushita. “In all my at-bats I was able to be myself.”
The Cubs’ 5-4 win Thursday against the Brewers marked Suzuki’s Major League Baseball debut. He went 1-for-2 at the plate with a pair of walks.
The first stages of Suzuki’s on-field adjustment played out in spring training. And it wasn’t just that the four-time Nippon Professional Baseball All-Star struck out in his first two Cactus League at-bats before hitting a pair of home runs and then logging a multi-hit game in his last spring training appearance.
“Everybody always talks about the velo,” Cubs hitting coach Greg Brown said of the difference between the leagues, “but it’s also the disruption of timing and mechanics, like through slide steps. Deliveries are different, right? You face [Marcus] Stroman, and he gives you 17 different [looks]. I think that his creativeness and being able to adapt to the pitcher at that time is something that I’ve probably been the most impressed with.”
Suzuki’s timing started to click when he realized that instead of replicating his stride, he’d be better off moving with the pitcher. Facing Stroman in an intrasquad scrimmage last week was an especially helpful test.
“He’s my teammate, but there’s so many things that I felt like I needed to work on after my at-bats against Stroman,” Suzuki said early this week, after going 2-for-3 against the White Sox. “And that’s what I did in my at-bats [Monday].”
Stroman was equally complimentary, saying he was careful about putting anything in the strike zone against Suzuki.
“He can rake, man,” Stroman said. “He can rake, he’s got a great approach, he’s got a lot of power. He’s someone where you can’t make mistakes.”
The way Cubs video coordinator and Pacific Rim liaison Nao Masamoto sees it, the biggest adjustment to major-league pitching varies from player to player. Masamoto, who was a standout Division III baseball player himself, also worked closely with Kosuke Fukudome during his Cubs tenure.
“It’s not just the baseball, it’s everything else, right?” Masamoto said in a conversation with the Sun-Times. “Your lifestyle’s changing 180 degrees. When you wake up, it’s just different. So, I’m pretty sure that plays into how you perform on the baseball field too.”
Cubs bench coach Andy Green can attest to the drastic shift, after going from MLB to play a season in Japan in 2007.
“You end up on the other side of the world, and your day is night and night is day, and you can’t speak to anybody without an interpreter, and you’re not sure what practice looks like,” Green said. “… For me, it was a really tough transition.”
The past few weeks, he’s watched Suzuki seemingly adapt quickly to those things that were hard for Green.
Suzuki faced reigning National League Cy Young winner Corbin Burnes in his first two MLB plate appearances Thursday. He drew a two-strike walk in the first and lined a single to left field in his second.
That single started the Cubs’ biggest rally of the game. Suzuki eventually scored on a sacrifice fly from Patrick Wisdom, tying the score at one run apiece. Shortstop Nico Hoerner gave the Cubs the lead the same inning, belting a two-run home run, his first homer since September 2019.
“Obviously a really great pitcher, and there was some stuff that I’d never seen before,” Suzuki said, referring to Burnes’ cutter. “So, it was really fun. But I came to this stage to challenge myself and to be able to face pitchers of that caliber. It’s going to bring my game to another level.”
Suzuki will still have learning moments. As teams gather more data on him, they’ll adjust, and he in turn will react to the new way pitchers approach him.But with his debut, Suzuki made a strong impression on the Wrigley Field crowd.