Baseball / Japanese Baseball

Laird confident Fighters can compete in 2018

by Jason Coskrey

Staff Writer

Brandon Laird rounded third base wearing a big smile on Saturday afternoon at Jingu Stadium. As he headed for home, Laird held out his left hand and tapped his palm with the index and middle fingers of his right, pantomiming someone making sushi, as he does after all of his home runs.

As usual, Fighters fans ate it up, and Hokkaido’s most famous sushi chef, who served up a grand slam in a spring game against the Tokyo Yakult Swallows on Saturday (off Yakult’s announced opening day starter David Buchanan), believes there’s more where that came from.

“The fans enjoy it,” Laird told The Japan Times, referring to his home run performance, in the visitors dugout. “It’s a lot of fun. I enjoy doing it too, so I’m gonna keep it for as long as I’m in Japan.”

Last year wasn’t much fun for Laird and the Fighters. After winning the Japan Series in 2016, the team slumped to a fifth-place finish in the Pacific League in 2017, only beating out the last-place Chiba Lotte Marines by 2½ games.

“We had our ups and downs,” Laird said. “We had some injuries to some big, key guys. We just have to try to build for this year. We got those guys who were hurt back. We lost (Shohei) Ohtani, but we gained (Kotaro) Kiyomiya. We signed some new foreigners. The way it looks right now, our lineup looks good and our pitching looks good, so I think we’re going to have a good shot this year.”

Kensuke Kondo, who hit .413 in 57 games, is among the injured Fighters Laird is happy to have back.

“He hits everything to all over the field,” Laird said. “It’s pretty impressive. Look at what he did last year. I’ve been talking to him, saying ‘what are you going to hit this year?’ He said .400. Anything’s possible, it’s good to set your standards high. I think he’s going to have a good year.”

Laird played in 137 games last season, hitting .229 with 32 home runs and 90 RBIs. He’s gradually getting back into the swing of things and is pleased with where his game is at this point of the spring.

He arrived in Japan this year a little further along in his preparations than usual. He took some time off for a vacation after the 2017 campaign and spent time with family and friends. He was hitting again by December, picking up the bat about a month earlier than he normally does.

The 30-year-old reported in good shape and high spirits and has carried that throughout spring training.

“I feel good this year, especially at this time,” Laird said. “I feel like right now, where we are right now, I feel like I’m ready for the season. My body feels good, my swing, my approach, defense. I feel like I’m, I don’t want to say ahead of schedule, but if the season was tomorrow I’d be ready.”

Now in his fourth year in Japan, Laird has also spent the spring trying to help ease the transition for the team’s first-year foreign players: pitchers Nick Martinez, Bryan Rodriguez and Michael Tonkin and slugger Oswaldo Arcia.

“Even in Arizona (where the Fighters began spring camp), I was just giving them a head’s up on things and just said, ‘If you guys need help, feel free to ask me.’ ” I try to help them as much as I can.

“But you can really tell by this group of guys, they’re really open-minded and they’re already enjoying their time in Japan. They’re out and about doing things and wanting to learn the culture, the people, the food. I think they’re already settled in. I think they’re going to be a big key to our team this year.”

Laird said his own first few weeks in Japan, back in 2015, were “nerve-racking.” So he can appreciate what the new foreign players are going through. He also knows what his former teammate Ohtani is experiencing in the U.S with the Los Angeles Angels. While Ohtani has gotten off to a slow start, Laird isn’t worried about him.

“Just wait,” he said. “I feel like Ohtani, even here, in spring you could tell he was just working on things and getting a feel for his pitches. Over there, he’s adjusting to a whole different country, lifestyle change, baseball, strike zone, things that I had to adjust to when I came to Japan. I feel like if the fans are just patient, once the season starts he’s going to be just fine.

“I feel like with how much hype he got, being as big as he was in Japan and talked about in the States before he was even over there, like he was the Babe Ruth of Japan, I felt like he had a lot of pressure on him going over there. But he is human. He’s not always going to pitch complete-game shutouts and strike everybody out and he’s not going to hit a home run every at-bat.

“Ohtani knows what he needs to do over there. I feel like he’s going to adjust just fine, pitching-wise and hitting-wise. It just might be taking him a little longer. It’s spring training. It’s a long season, I think he’s going to be just fine.”

Laird is also confident he’ll be just fine in Japan.

“I know I can hit for a better average,” Laird said. “I know what I’m capable of doing. My average has been low the last couple of years, but my home runs and RBIs have been there. If I just clean up the average a little bit and continue to have big power numbers and have a good season this year, anything is possible.”