The road Ernesto Mejia took to his brilliant start to the season didn’t begin on opening day, or even on the first day of spring camp. It started during a few restless days he spent in Japan while waiting to fly home after the 2015 season. He was upset with the way his year had gone, that he hadn’t been able to do more to help the Seibu Lions climb higher than fourth place in the Pacific League.
So even before leaving Japan, Mejia began his training for 2016 by finding time to go running when he could. He kept it up when he got home, mixing in other types of training. For months he worked relentlessly, almost from the minute one season ended until the next began.
The seeds he planted are beginning to blossom, a fact PL pitchers can attest to, with Mejia looking better than ever. The Lions slugger is 10th in the PL in batting average and leads Japan with 16 home runs. He has 11 doubles, 42 RBIs, is fourth in NPB with a .631 slugging percentage and also has a .333 isolated power average.
“I would say it’s been excellent,” Mejia said of his year to this point. “It’s way better than I expected, even though I had a feeling I was going to have a good start because I worked very hard during the offseason. It’s really nice. It gives me motivation. We still have a long way to go, I gotta keep working hard and do a lot of things well to end up really good. What really matters is how you end up.”
Mejia didn’t like where he ended up last season. He played in 135 games, hitting .235 with 27 home runs, 89 RBIs and a .307 on-base percentage. “I knew I could’ve done so much more,” he said.
Because of the work he put in during the offseason — lifting weights, doing core exercises and running — Mejia entered camp in much better condition than in 2015.
“I felt it right away, from the first day,” he said. “Even the weather didn’t bother me as much as I thought it would. After practice, I wasn’t extremely tired and recovery was really quick. The next day (after practices) I would wake up really well, not like last year when I would wake up broken, with pain everywhere. This year, was actually really good. Even the trainers were really impressed by my muscle condition.”
Mejia’s offseason program shaped his body, but he says the drills he did during practices have helped him do more at the plate. Mejia is currently hitting .295 and has a .355 on-base percentage, and said he’s more pleased by his average than the home runs he’s put up.
“Definitely my average, because I’m hitting a lot of balls to right field, even home runs,” said Mejia, who hits right-handed. “So that’s what I’m enjoying the most this year, that’s what I really like. I’m also getting on base pretty much at least once a game, and that’s what makes me really feel happy right now. Home runs will be there, I know I can hit home runs. My challenge is to have a really good on-base percentage, and average.
“The walk-strikeout balance (he has 15 walks and 47 strikeouts), I need to get that better. That’s one of the things I’m worried about.”
Opposing pitchers have begun to attack him in different ways, but Mejia has also played his role in the dance.
“Of course, and I keep doing my thing too,” he said. “They adjust to me, I try to adjust to them. They’re pitching a little differently, but I gotta keep battling.”
Pacific League hurlers will get a break from Mejia when the interleague season begins May 31. Mejia hit .267 with four homers and 13 RBIs against Central League teams last season and is looking forward to another crack at the CL.
“I’m excited,” he said. “We’re going to visit different stadiums and host different teams that we don’t see often. We’ll see different players and different pitchers. It’s nice. It takes you out of the routine a little. It looks like a new league a little bit, and then you go back to the normal things.”
Despite Mejia’s numbers, the Lions are mired in fifth place in the PL. He does, however, see some promising signs coming out of Saitama Prefecture.
“Personally, I’m having a great year,” he said. “I’m not doing so well lately, but I feel good, which is important. More importantly, we have a couple of guys who are on fire right now, like (Hideto) Asamura. (Takumi) Kuriyama, he’s on fire, and (Takuya) Nakamura is back.”
“Those guys are very important in our lineup, so we’re going to be really dangerous as long as our pitching keeps opponents to very few runs,” he said. “We can win games.”