Suzuki makes return with electric inside-the-parker

July 5th, 2022

MILWAUKEE -- The decibel level inside American Family Field began to rise as the crowd began to realize what could happen. With each stride  took, it became increasingly clear that an inside-the-park home run -- one off All-Star closer Josh Hader, no less -- was unfolding.

Suzuki announced his return to the Cubs in dramatic fashion on Monday, providing a stunning go-ahead homer in the ninth inning. The Brewers spoiled the moment by pulling off two late rallies that sent the North Siders to a 5-2 loss in 10 innings, but Suzuki's personal comeback also carried weight.

"This game kind of meant a lot to me," Suzuki said via his interpreter, Toy Matsushita.

Following a 39-day absence due to a persistent left hand injury, Suzuki came off the injured list and achieved the first inside-the-park home run for Chicago since Aug. 7, 2017, when Javier Báez turned the trick in San Francisco. It was the eighth inside-the-parker by a Cubs batter going back to 2000, and the first for a visiting player at the Brewers' ballpark since May 4, 2018 (Pittsburgh’s Starling Marte).

It was an electric play that put a little added sting on the loss.

"Seiya was incredible," said veteran Cubs reliever David Robertson, who allowed a game-tying run in the ninth in a rare lapse in command. "That doesn't happen much. An inside-the-parker. A Little League home run. It happened."

With the game caught in a 1-1 deadlock, the Brewers turned things over to Hader, who entered the game with a 1.05 ERA and a gaudy 44.3 percent strikeout rate in his first 27 games this year. The lefty started things off with an elevated 97 mph sinker that struck out Ian Happ.

That set the stage for Suzuki, who took two pitches for balls before attacking a sinker from Hader in the heart of the zone. The liner carried to deep center with an exit velocity of 109.9 mph, per Statcast, and began to sink as it approached the ballpark's padded wall. The baseball then struck a section that is angled in the direction of right field.

The baseball caromed off the wall and shot along the warning track, beyond the reach of Brewers center fielder Jonathan Davis. The outfielder chased after the ball, as Suzuki chased the go-ahead run.

Suzuki was off to the races. And what was running through his mind in that moment?

"Stop me," Suzuki joked. "My legs were getting pretty tired. I was getting ready for somebody to say, 'Stop.'"

As Suzuki rounded second, Cubs third-base coach Willie Harris began emphatically spinning his right arm, sending the rookie home with no hesitation. Davis retrieved the ball and fired it to second baseman Luis Urías, who quickly relayed it to catcher Victor Caratini.

"After I rounded third, I saw the catcher kind of coming towards me," Suzuki said. "That's when I thought, like, 'I don't want to get injured again.' I just did my best to [slide] where it prevented me from getting another injury."

Caratini made a swiping tag attempt, but Suzuki narrowly avoided him, sliding to the right of the plate before reaching over and slapping it with his left hand. Inside the training room in the visitors' clubhouse, Cubs starter Justin Steele -- following 6 2/3 strong innings -- watched it all unfold on one of the TVs.

"That was sick," Steele said. "I gave a good shout."

It was a moment that meant a lot to Suzuki, given the recent course his first season in the Majors has taken.

On May 26, Suzuki sustained a left ring finger sprain on a slide into second base in a game in Cincinnati. Including that game, he hit .192 (.572 OPS) in the 22 games leading up to his move to the injured list. That followed a strong stretch in April, when he hit .312 (1.024 OPS) in his first 19 games en route to the National League Rookie of the Month Award.

It took longer than expected for the swelling in Suzuki's finger to subside, but he spent a week ramping up his activity at the team's complex in Arizona before a recent Minor League rehab assignment. In three games with Triple-A Iowa, Suzuki looked like himself again, going 4-for-9 with one homer, two doubles and a pair of walks.

"He's been itchy for a while," Cubs manager David Ross said of Suzuki's desire to get back quickly. "That's why we sort of had the back and forth of trying to slow him down and making sure he's 100 percent. But he feels great."

That was evident in Milwaukee, where Suzuki had three hard-hit balls in his return. He had a flyout to center that registered at 99.9 mph off the bat, a seventh-inning single that had an exit velocity of 103.9 mph and then the inside-the-park home run to cap off an impressive day.

"The fact that I was able to display what I did today," Suzuki said, "was something that I'm very satisfied with."