“He is not afraid of challenges”

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A golf cart rumbled past the entrance to the Chicago Cubs clubhouse, heading for the complex’s indoor batting cages.

Seiya Suzuki had just completed three innings in his spring opener in front of a crowd of 10,595 on Friday at Sloan Park. His first two plate appearances weren’t exactly memorable: two strikeouts, including a few boundary calls.

Suzuki, accompanied in the golf cart by assistant batting coach Johnny Washington and interpreter Toy Matsushita, then headed to the cages. His post-game media sessions would have to wait.

For 30 minutes, Suzuki took swings, the crunch of the bat occasionally echoing across the adjacent empty agility field. His explanation for the extra cage work was simple.

“I got a little pissed off with those two unfortunate batters,” Suzuki said through his interpreter.

All eyes were on Suzuki in its spring debut. He admitted to feeling very nervous before the match, his legs shaking. He spent time signing autographs on the left field line before the national anthem. Prior to his first plate appearance late in the first inning, as Imagine Dragons’ “Thunder” played over the speakers, Suzuki touched the edge of his helmet to the applause of the Cubs fans.

Aside from his two-strikeout day, Suzuki handled a routine fly ball in the second for his only play in right field. He was happy to face Colorado Rockies All-Star right-hander Germán Márquez for his first taste of major league pitching. Nothing will compare to what he will experience in less than two weeks on opening day at Wrigley Field.

“It’s a ground with a lot of history and a rich tradition, so being able to play on this type of ground is something I’m very, very grateful for,” Suzuki said. “But not just to play on it, but also to get results. So that’s what I’m going to work on. »

Suzuki trip to Chicago on March 15 assured that opening day will not be the first time he has entered the field. He wanted to form an opinion of the city and the baseball field before signing his five-year, $85 million contract. Suzuki said he was struck by the rooftop seats surrounding the ballpark, something he had never seen.

During his tour at Wrigley, Suzuki felt an adrenaline rush when he saw “Welcome, Seiya Suzuki” in Japanese on the left field video board along with an image of him punching in a Cubs uniform.

“But if I keep hitting like today, I feel like someone is going to throw beer at me one day,” Suzuki joked. “So if somebody throws beer at me, I’m going to get kinda crushed in the corner of right field.”

Batting coach Greg Brown was part of the five-person Cubs contingent that flew to Los Angeles for the March 14 meeting with Suzuki. Beyond his important role on the coaching staff, Brown brought to the meeting his recruiting experience from nine seasons as a Division II coach at Nova Southeastern University.

“The key is just trying to find points of connection,” Brown told the Tribune on Friday. “He loves to hit, he loves to talk and he has a great personality. … He’s very engaging, very confident, and you see with his interactions with the players, he can immerse himself right away. This is going to be the recipe for success for him.

While Friday marked his first playing action, Suzuki has been practicing live batting almost daily since reporting to camp on March 18. He immediately wanted to see speed after going about five months without facing pitchers.

“He’s not afraid of a challenge,” Brown said.

Brown touts Suzuki as a hitter first more than a power guy – it’s his approach and efficiency that help him drive the ball.

“The ball goes out and he doesn’t look like he’s trying, but that’s because he’s moving really well from the middle,” Brown said. “So it’s something that if you could help create better all-around performance, that would be it, so he already has it. It’s just adapting to the flow of how pitchers throw. It’s a totally different style.

The Cubs immersed themselves in extensive Suzuki scouting and video work during the nearly 3 1/2 month lockdown. But that doesn’t go any further. It’s always helpful to have your eyes on a player to get a fuller picture. After working with him the past eight days, Brown said Suzuki’s physique and strength stood out. Suzuki also showed an ability to make adjustments.

“When you’re throwing batting practices at guys a lot, you’ve got a prediction when you let it go,” Brown said. “You understand where they are going to hit him directionally. He has the ability, like, I’m going to cut a ball and all of a sudden he hits it the other way. There’s a creativity there that I probably haven’t seen much.

The Cubs expect a transition period for Suzuki, especially culturally. He already seems comfortable with his new teammates and coaches. Manager David Ross recalled Suzuki approaching him one day in the weight room and pointing out the trail mix Ross was eating. Suzuki asked if it was chocolate, prompting Ross to clarify that his snack was trail mix.

“It says, ‘No, no, no, chocolate,’ like in trail mix,” Ross said.

Ross confirmed it included chocolate, at which point Suzuki reached out and rubbed Ross’ belly.

“I was, like, ‘You’re way too comfortable,'” Ross said, amused. “If that tells you anything, it’s that he has a very good idea of ​​him. It fits really well. The guys in the locker room seem really interested in him and he in them.

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