ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Manager Brandon Hyde met with new reliever Shintaro Fujinami this afternoon and shared the club’s expectations for him.
Nothing too detailed. Nothing about a specific role. Keep it simple and relaxed.
“They said, ‘We’re going to put you in a good spot, so do your best,’” Fujinami said today, sitting next to interpreter Issei Kamada in the visiting dugout at Tropicana Field.
The Orioles want Fujinami to feel comfortable and they’d like to reduce the initial pressure on him, with low-leverage spots if the circumstances allow it.
They rarely do on this club.
“Have you been watching our games?” Hyde said, trying to suppress a grin.
“I would love to ease him in, but we’ll see what happens. Baseball throws you different twists and turns. We’ve used guys quite a bit lately and he’s fresh, so if he gets in there tonight, let’s hope he pitches well.”
The Orioles acquired Fujinami from the Athletics Wednesday for Triple-A pitcher Easton Lucas, a trade that surprised him. But he went from a team with the worst record in baseball to one that leads the American League East and holds the second-best record.
“A little nervous,” he said. “A lot more people watching the game. Obviously, some situations in Oakland had some fans watching me, but there’s going to be more fans, so a little pressure.”
Fujinami has registered an 8.57 ERA in 34 games, including seven starts, but his move to the bullpen and some tweaks with his delivery contributed to a 3.97 ERA in June and 2.25 ERA in eight July innings. He walked 24 batters in the first two months and only six over the past two, and his fastball velocity increased in shorter bursts.
“I feel more comfortable pitching in the big leagues,” said Fujinami, a 29-year-old native of Sakai, Japan who signed a $3.25 million deal in January after 10 seasons in Nippon Professional Baseball.
“I wasn’t feeling very comfortable with my pitching mechanics at the beginning of the season, and the ball is a little different, a little more slick. The biggest thing is the strike zone’s different than the Japanese League, so that was the tough part. Here, it’s tighter at both ends and the bottom, but the top of the zone is a little wider than the Japanese League.”
Fujinami also whittled his six-pitch mix, relying more on a four-seam fastball and splitter, with scattered use of his cutter and slider. The sinker and curveball are shelved.
“One thing is, changing form starter to reliever, you need to cut down the pitches,” he said. “Also, at the beginning of the season I struggled with the command a little bit. And the pitching coach told me those two pitches are at elite level, so focus on those two more.”
Fujinami said he’d eventually like to get back to starting, but he’s happy to contribute out of the bullpen. He can become a free agent after the season.
“At this point, the big leagues value me as a reliever," he said, "so I’ll do my best here."
Fujinami is the second Japanese-born player in Orioles history, joining Koji Uehara from 2009-11.
“He’s a really classy, professional guy, and had a great conversation with him about his time in Oakland, but also being here. He’s excited to be here and we’re excited to have him,” Hyde said.
“The stuff is really good. He was pitching really well in Oakland his last 10-15 appearances, so really excited to have him.”