Nakajima 'very relieved' after first hit in America

Nakajima 'very relieved' after first hit in America
February 26, 2013, 4:15 pm
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I finally got that first hit out of the way so I am very relieved.
—Hiro Nakajima

SCOTTSDALE -- No player at Oakland Athletics camp has more eyes on him than Hiro Nakajima. A superstar in his home country of Japan, he signed a highly-publicized offseason deal and no one really knows what to expect from him.

Nakajima has a lot of pressure to perform in American baseball. Facing the best pitching in the world isn't the only challenge he has to overcome. There are language barriers, cultural differences, and he has to face the stigma that Japanese infielders can't succeed in MLB.

When he got off to a rough start offensively this spring, he started to press a little bit at the plate. Nakajima was 0-for-6 with five strikeouts and a walk when A's manager Bob Melvin and Chili Davis helped changed his fortune.

"Before going up to the plate I got advice from Chili Davis saying I was being too overaggressive in the previous two at-bats," Nakajima said through interpreter Hiroo Nishi. "He told me to relax and be patient and that advice really helped me."

The skipper put him in the position to succeed. Nakajima was supposed to be done for the day after two plate appearances, but Melvin gave him one more trip to the plate.

"I definitely didn't want to end the day with two consecutive games with two strikeouts," Nakajima said.

Nakajima responded by smacking a single between the first and second basemen for his first hit in America.

"I finally got that first hit out of the way so I am very relieved," Nakajima said.

Melvin is going to work with Nakajima a bit more this spring. If he feels he needs more at-bats to be comfortable, then he will get them. That extra trip to the plate definitely made a difference on Tuesday.

"We know he's going to hit," Melvin said. "Certainly in spring training he's doing the right thing as far as how he's handling his at-bats. After a couple of games to get your first handshakes, and high fives from your teammates, it's nice to get your first hit."

According to Nakajima, the biggest difference he's seen in America is the length of stride by Major League pitchers. Because of the long stride, the pitcher's release point is closer to the plate and that changes his timing.

It has been a different story altogether for Nakajima defensively. The three-time Gold Glove shortstop in Japan has handled all of the baseballs hit his way thus far. The ability to play solid defense, even if struggling offensively, is very important to Nakajima.

"Defensively I think every opportunity that has come to me I have executed perfectly, so far," Nakajima said. "I've had my set backs on my offensive side so at least I have my defensive side on track."

Nakajima hit .302 with 162 home runs and 738 RBI over 11 seasons in the Japan Pacific League while playing for the Seibu Lions. Last season he hit .311 with 13 homers and 74 RBI in 136 games. Most of the questions about Nakajima's skill set had been about his defense, but he looks fine there.

"He's very fundamentally sound, he works very hard," Melvin said "You can actually see him playing pitch to pitch, seeing the signs and knowing where he needs to play. It seems like he is in the right position, slides very well over into the hole, turns a double play, it's been good."

Nakajima has handled the pressures of playing American baseball very well. He is extremely friendly, always has a smile on his face, and is very outgoing in the clubhouse. Now that he has played his first game here, fielded his first ground ball, turned his first double plays, and recorded his first hit he can settle in and flash more than just a smile on the field.

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