Hanshin Tigers first baseman Mauro Gomez was excited to get a chance to play ball in Japan, and his hot start has almost made a mockery of the challenges faced by new foreign players.
Although he only went 1-for-4 in Sunday’s 8-4 loss to the Yokohama BayStars, Gomez reached base for the 27th consecutive game, the longest season-opening streak in team history.
Through Sunday, the 29-year-old Dominican Republic native was batting .336 with a .400 on-base percentage, 35 runs and 30 RBIs for what has been the Central League’s best offense so far this season.
Gomez’s fast start has calmed concerns about how his adjustment phase would be affected by his late arrival in camp.
The Tigers permitted Gomez to report late in order to be present for the birth of his second daughter, but things didn’t go as planned.
“After one week she got sick, there were complications, so I called the team again to see if I can stay a couple more days,” he told Kyodo News on Sunday.
“She was sent home from the hospital, so I came here. I was excited to come to Japan. In spring training, I had a little problem with my knee. We are not used to practicing on turf in the States, so I think that’s why I got a little pain in my knee. But I had a bit of treatment and everything was fine.”
After doing well in Triple-A, Gomez had 102 at-bats in 37 games for the Boston Red Sox in 2012. He spent all of last year in Triple-A Buffalo, where he played for former Hiroshima Carp and Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles manager Marty Brown.
“He said, ‘If you think you don’t get an opportunity in the States, I think you can go to Japan and do well there,’ ” Gomez said of Brown.
“A couple of friends they play here in Japan, (Hector) Luna and Wily Mo (Pena). They told me it (Japanese ball) is good. You’ve just got to follow the rules, their rules. If you play good and you don’t cross the line, you can do good.
“So when my agent called me and said we had an offer from a team in Japan, I said, ‘Let’s make it, let’s do it.’ I’m tired to be in Triple-A.”
Getting here, however, is half the battle. New players are faced with lengthy practice regimens, frequent meetings and pitchers who take forever to come to the plate and can never be counted on to throw fastballs regardless of the count.
“In the States, two balls no strikes, you get ready for fastball,” he said. “Here, you never know. Maybe a fork, maybe a slider. It’s tough here.
“I’m the kind of hitter, I just go to the plate be ready for a fastball and just react to a breaking pitch. Here? No. I go to bat relaxed, get a good pitch in the zone and hit it.”
He said the knee injury that forced him to get extra at-bats in the less pressurized atmosphere of the Tigers’ Western League farm team turned out to be a blessing.
“I think that helped me see more pitchers,” he said. “I think it helped me relax and just try to see the ball and hit it.”
The presence of fifth-year Japan veteran Matt Murton and batting coach Tom O’Malley have smoothed the transition.
“Matt told me (what’s going on) and I just listen. They tell me something, I just listen and try to do it.”
O’Malley, who has returned to the Tigers as a coach this season, said having Murton as a teammate is an advantage but gives credit to Gomez’s ability to master his lessons.
“We try to make it a little easier,” O’Malley said. “But he’s a great learner. Every day he’s soaking it up. He’s got a lot of ability, but he’s really educating himself quick. He’s made a difference in this lineup.”
The final proof, however, will be in the swings and results Gomez gets throughout a long and tiring season.
“We always tell him you’ve got to maintain your strength throughout the year,” O’Malley said. “A first-year guy, they’re not used to how much goes into it. Come summer, hopefully he can maintain. We’re very happy with what he’s done.”
And Gomez is enjoying it as well. His first home game at Koshien Stadium reminded him of his debut at storied Fenway Park in Boston.
“I love the (Tigers) fans,” he said. “They’re loud the whole game. They support the team. Fenway is packed every day. Boston fans are really good, too. They love the Red Sox. Very similar.”