CHIBA – Daichi Suzuki hasn’t missed a game for the Chiba Lotte Marines in over three seasons. In 2015, he missed one. Both years before that, he was on the field for every contest.
Suzuki played all his games in the field at third base last season. This year he has a new rival for playing time at third in Brandon Laird, who the Marines signed over the offseason. Laird, a former Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters slugger, led the Pacific League with 39 home runs in 2016 and has hit at least 26 every year since 2015.
While Suzuki is happy to have a player like Laird on board, he’s also a competitor.
“In that sense, it’s not only Laird,” Suzuki said to The Japan Times at Zozo Marine Stadium. “I can’t lose to any of the Lotte players, because then I won’t get to play. Even though Laird isn’t the only one, he’s probably seen as my top rival. But I shouldn’t play the same way he does. I have my own strengths, and there are things he does better than me.
“First of all, I have to give everything I have and make my case. I can’t say what will happen this year, but even if I lose and Laird goes on the field first, I have to keep myself ready.”
Suzuki is entering his eighth season with the Marines. He’s been an All-Star four times, was named to the Pacific League’s Best Nine squad as a shortstop in 2013 and 2016 and won a Golden Glove at second base in 2017.
He’s one of the most respected members of the club, leading both vocally and by example. He may not have the title of captain, but he’s arguably the team’s heart and soul. He actually was the captain from 2014-18, until incoming manager Tadahito Iguchi decided the team wouldn’t have one.
“Definitely a leader,” said Marines pitcher Mike Bolsinger. “Even on the field, he’s the type of guy who will come up to you while you’re pitching and talk to you. To me, I love when I’m pitching if someone comes up to me and just has a random conversation. I like to be relaxed when I’m pitching. I think he’s gotten where he comes up and talks to you and just kind of jokes around.
“Great guy, obviously everyone respects him. I respect him. He’s a great ballplayer.”
Suzuki is aware of how he’s viewed in Chiba and doesn’t take it lightly.
“People tend to look to me as I’ve been a regular to some extent here for many years, so there is some responsibility,” Suzuki said.
The Lotte infielder hit .266 and drove in 49 runs for the Marines last season. It was a difficult season for the club, which finished fifth in the Pacific League.
Rather than dwell on 2018, Suzuki wants Lotte to use it as motivation.
“That feeling of wanting to bounce back is there,” he said. “We’ll certainly be able to compete with the top teams if everyone carries that desire until the end. We were defeated last year, so I really have a strong desire to make up for that.”
One area where the team should be better is in home runs. After hitting an NPB-worst 78 last year, the walls were moved in at Zozo Marine Stadium, creating the new “Home Run Lagoon.”
“The walls have been moved in, so it’s natural the number of home runs would increase,” Suzuki said. “But I don’t think we should just be trying to hit home runs. I think we should keep competing the way we have up to now. Having more home runs is like an extra element that can help us win.”
Whether it’s by hitting more home runs or playing small ball or combining the two, Suzuki just wants to win. The Lotte talisman loves playing for the Marines and the feeling he gets when “Zozo Sta” is rocking.
“The stadium has changed, but there are still a lot of fans in the right field stands and each of them cheers with everything they have,” Suzuki said.
“It makes you happy as a baseball player to be able to play in that environment, because there is nothing like it. So I want to really lift the spirits of all the fans and my teammates through this team winning.”
That’s the mentality Suzuki is taking into the season whether he wins a starting job or not.
“In a perfect world, I win the competition and play well every day,” he said. “But in reality, things don’t always go that way. Even when things don’t go as planned, I have to stay positive and play.
“That is my No. 1 goal. You can’t have only good days every day. Even when you’re down, you have to focus on what you have to do. If that’s what leads your team to wins and eventually to the championship, that is the best thing.
“Also, (Kazuya) Fukuura-san retires after this season. So I want to play with him more and we want to send him off in the best way possible.”