After sitting a few games, Suzuki standing tall at the plate

Cubs outfielder hitting .390 since being kept out of lineup: 'It's been fun to watch'

August 27th, 2023

PITTSBURGH -- Cody Bellinger walked to his locker inside the visitor’s clubhouse at PNC Park, chanting Seiya Suzuki’s first name. Nearby, Suzuki tried to suppress a smile as another teammate, Jeimer Candelario, got in on the fun for the gathered crowd of media.

“If anyone can,” Candelario said, “Seiya can.”

The Cubs’ lineup takes on a dangerous look when Suzuki is performing at a high level. On Sunday, the outfielder was in the middle of multiple rallies to help the North Siders run away with a 10-1 victory that put the final touch on a 5-2 swing through Detroit and Pittsburgh.

Righty Javier Assad spun seven stellar innings in the win, which kept the Cubs in the second Wild Card spot in the National League and four games behind the division-leading Brewers in the NL Central. That sets the stage for an important three-game series between Chicago and Milwaukee this week at Wrigley Field.

“We’re looking forward to it,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “We’re looking forward to getting them at home.”

Suzuki’s teammates were having fun with his turn in the postgame spotlight, but the larger development is that he is having more fun on the field. That continued against the Pirates, who saw Suzuki reach base four times -- twice via double and twice by walk -- and score two runs while extending a career-best hitting streak to 10 games.

“It’s been an impressive little run he’s on,” Ross said. “When he’s swinging it well offensively and has confidence, the rest of his game has been ticked up. I think that’s just playing freer, having some confidence in yourself, having some joy in your game and some fun out there.

“And you see the type of player -- that’s who we’re getting. He’s really good.”

There is a reason Ross throws the words “confidence” and “joy” into his assessment of Suzuki’s play right now. Earlier this month, the outfielder was mired in a lengthy slump that was taking a toll on those attributes and, in turn, having an impact on Suzuki’s aggressiveness in the batter’s box.

Ross decided to pull Suzuki from the lineup for a four-game stretch from Aug. 5-8, giving the right fielder a chance to take a deep breath and just observe things. The manager said pulling a player out of the in-game “compete mode” can sometimes help reverse a downward spiral.

“When it's not going well, you don't know how to get out of it,” Ross said. “You feel like you're drowning a little bit and nobody's there to grab your hand and pull you out of the water. I think when you're able to sit over here and watch the game, you're like, 'Oh, wow,' like, 'This looks obvious from over here.' The game slows down a little bit.”

Now, with the benefit of hindsight, Suzuki did not disagree.

“I feel like I was able to think about the approach,” Suzuki said through interpreter Toy Matsushita. “Even things that are not affiliated with baseball. I was just trying to reset my feelings, my mental state. And I think that’s why I’m doing pretty well right now.”

On Aug. 7, Suzuki had one pinch-hit appearance in New York against the Mets and struck out. That gave him a .207/.268/.307 slash line in 150 at-bats dating back to June 15, dropping his season OPS from .825 to .715. Suzuki fell a double shy of a cycle in his return to the lineup on Aug. 9 and has not looked back.

In 16 games since that four-game intermission, Suzuki has hit .390 (23-for-59) with a .431 on-base percentage and .763 slugging percentage. In that stretch, he has four home runs, six doubles, two triples, 11 RBIs, 15 runs and five walks (compared to seven strikeouts) in 65 plate appearances.

“It's been fun to watch,” said Bellinger, who had three hits and five RBIs in the Cubs’ eighth win in 11 games. “He looks like Seiya. He looks like he's enjoying himself. It's been very simple. And it definitely makes our team a whole lot better and a whole lot deeper.”

Suzuki drew a walk in the fourth and scored on a go-ahead two-run homer from Candelario. After Bellinger delivered a two-run double in the fifth, Suzuki followed with an RBI double of his own. Suzuki doubled to lead off the eighth and later scored from third on a Candelario comebacker to the mound.

On that electric play in the eighth, Suzuki slid in feet-first, kicking Candelario’s bat in the process and sending it flying into foul ground.

 “If I did get thrown out, I was just going to blame it all on Candelario,” Suzuki quipped.

A one-liner from Suzuki is another sign that he is back to feeling like himself.

“I just feel really good,” he said. “I think I’m being very aggressive in the box and taking good swings. I just want to make sure I continue this.”