CHICAGO -- The smile from Seiya Suzuki was hard to miss.
The Cubs’ right fielder could be seen beaming as he rounded first on Sunday afternoon, not long after his solo shot in the fifth sailed over the Wrigley Field ivy in left. It was the look of someone who had recently taken time off to reconfigure his swing amid a grueling slump, and who saw that off-the-field work provide immediate returns.
But the biggest takeaway from the moment, and the Cubs’ series-clinching 4-3 victory over the Royals, was by far the most important for Chicago -- Suzuki is finally having fun again.
“I’ve never seen him smile running around the bases, yelling in the dugout,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “He’s just having a really good time.”
Suzuki’s blast -- his 12th of the year -- helped Chicago secure a win that provided a one-game cushion in the standings as the team clings to the third and final National League Wild Card spot. The homer also served as further proof that Suzuki’s refocused approach can make a big difference for the Cubs down the stretch.
“I feel like I’m being really aggressive at the plate and I’m making those right decisions,” Suzuki said via interpreter Toy Matsushita. “I feel really good right now.
“There was a span where I wasn’t playing. I wasn’t out there on a regular basis. During that time, I took some time out and thought to myself, ‘What can I do to make myself an even better player?’ Because of that time span, I’m getting those results right now.”
That’s quite an understatement.
Suzuki’s time off -- a four-game stretch to open the month of August -- was meant to help him address his swing mechanics while toning down his self-diagnosed overthinking at the plate. Based on the early returns, it’s safe to say whatever was done behind the scenes is paying off.
Suzuki is batting .343 over the past nine games since returning to the everyday lineup, with a hit in all but one of them. He’s plated six runs over that stretch while tallying five extra-base hits. Though the sample size is small, it’s a significant upgrade from the lengthy lull he endured heading into his off time, in which he posted a .591 OPS over 187 at-bats from June 2 to Aug. 4.
“Honestly, it was my first time overcoming this challenge,” Suzuki said. “I’ve actually never experienced it before. But I think it was really great for me because I was able to learn a lot of things while not playing. That can really benefit you as a player in the long run, as well. I’m glad I was able to use that time wisely.”
Those benefits were on display with Suzuki’s homer off Royals starter Jordan Lyles on Sunday. The 29-year-old knew the ball wasn’t coming back as soon as he connected, a reaction you’d expect from someone who’d just sent an up-and-in sweeper 104.2 mph off the bat. The blast marked Suzuki’s third homer in his past 32 at-bats. He had just nine in 338 at-bats before that, five of which came in May.
Yet, it was the ease with which Suzuki rounded the bases that stood out to Ross, primarily because it was something Chicago’s manager hadn’t seen from him in quite some time.
“I don’t think he’s putting a lot of pressure on himself,” Ross said when asked what he’s noticed from Suzuki since his return. “He puts a lot on his back. He plays for a lot of people, even outside of this country. Most guys that get to this level and are really great players have a lot of perfectionist in them. It’s an imperfect game, and we’re imperfect people. Carrying all that can weigh you down, especially when you’re not doing what you want to do and what you’re expected to do.
“Just a little bit of reset, and it looks like he’s having fun.”
It’s an outcome that couldn’t have come at a better time for the Cubs. Suddenly having Suzuki’s bat back in full swing would be a huge boost for Chicago during a pivotal 39-game push towards the playoffs.
“We’re in a good spot, we’ve just got to go on a good stretch here and keep it rolling,” said Kyle Hendricks, who allowed just one run across 6 1/3 innings. “It’s just such a close-knit group, picking one another up day in and day out. We’re having so much fun in there right now.”
That statement was echoed by Suzuki, who can finally say as much after enduring one of the most difficult stretches of his career.