Baseball

Call-up lights fire under Fujinami

by Jim Allen

Kyodo

Shintaro Fujinami’s recent Samurai Japan call-up may have been taken him by surprise, but he said the opportunity won’t be taken for granted.

Although Fujinami had been a regular member of manager Hiroki Kokubo’s pitching staff, the right-hander was coming off his worst season as a pro. Thus, it was a surprise to many that Kokubo picked him for the games earlier this month against Mexico and the Netherlands.

But the confidence shown in him by Samurai Japan pitching coach Hiroshi Gondo has lit a fire under the 197-cm Fujinami, who now has his sights firmly set on earning a shot to play in March’s World Baseball Classic.

“The WBC is a possibility, and I want to be good enough to be considered for that,” Fujinami told Kyodo News after pitching against the Dutch on Nov. 12. “With that (goal) in mind, this was a good experience for me. I need to prepare myself mentally.

“I have to do a really good job with my offseason training.”

Fujinami, the No. 1 pick of the Hanshin Tigers in the 2012 draft, went 7-11 this year for the team with Japan’s weakest offense. His low point came on July 8. Lacking control, he allowed eight runs over six innings. Rookie Tigers manager Tomoaki Kanemoto said afterward that he allowed the 22-year-old to throw 161 pitches in a one-sided loss in order to “teach him a lesson.”

“I didn’t think I was going to be selected (this time),” Fujinami said after Samurai Japan’s 9-8, extra-inning win over the Netherlands in which he allowed two runs, one earned, over three innings.

Fujinami entered in the fifth inning and got off to a rocky start. Shortstop Hayato Sakamoto put the leadoff man on with a foolish error and career minor leaguer Kalian Sams crushed a 2-0 fastball for a two-run homer. Fujinami’s next pitch was hit for a single, but things turned around in a hurry.

Samurai Japan scored six times in the home half of the inning to overcome a 5-1 deficit and Fujinami left the mound with a lead.

“My pitch selection was poor and that changed (with the home run),” Fujinami said afterward. “I’m not going to say it was good that I gave up a home run, but that was the point from which I began making better use of my pitches.

“It was a good lesson.”

In his final inning, Fujinami recorded swinging strikeouts against Sams and Texas Rangers infielder Jurickson Profar — the only major leaguer on the Dutch roster.

“I don’t know if anyone would call today’s outing ‘good pitching,’ but after giving up the home run, I did pitch well. We then came from behind (immediately after) and so I knew I had to shut them down.

“A lot of foreign hitters can hit you if you don’t mix up your pitches. You can’t simply keep throwing the same thing or they’ll hurt you. If you become predictable, they’ll be looking for the fastball. So you have to have a balanced attack.

“I have to establish my fastball, but also keep using my breaking pitches.”

The Samurai Japan squad was together for eight days, and though Fujinami only saw three innings of action, he said Gondo taught him plenty.

“Mr. Gondo instructed me in various things,” Fujinami said. “In the past, he’s been a good pitching coach as well as a manager, and I’m thankful for his help.”

The following day, Gondo named Fujinami as one of the three pitchers with the best stuff in Japan.

“In terms of the quality of their pitches, Japan’s best are (Nippon Ham Fighters Shohei) Otani, (Yomiuri Giants star Tomoyuki) Sugano and Fujinami,” Gondo said. “I’ve watched him (Fujinami) when he’s good and when he isn’t and it’s like night and day.

“He needs to work up and down, rather than inside and out. He’s tall, and when he tries to pitch inside or outside, he can throw good pitches but they often end up so far out of the zone that they have no use.

“I want him to keep his body line and arm motion straight down the middle. When he does that and has good arm action, he has plenty of movement on his fastball and breaking pitches and is hard to hit.”

As with many lanky pitchers, balance is an issue for Fujinami and Gondo was pleased to hear his new pet project was considering adding an offseason weight training program.

“That could be very big for him. Look what it did for Otani,” Gondo said. “He wasn’t Fujinami, but he was still skinny. But look at him (Otani) now. He’s much stronger now and better for it.”