Uneven debut a learning opportunity for Fujinami

Japanese righty flashes electric stuff vs. Angels before command issues spoil first start

April 2nd, 2023

OAKLAND -- The anticipation for 's Major League debut was building since the day he signed with the A’s back in January. A clear buzz was in the air once that day finally came on Saturday, with a sea of green shirseys featuring the right-hander’s last name in Japanese characters flowing throughout the lower level of the Coliseum.

For the first two innings of a 13-1 A’s loss to the Angels, Fujinami matched the hype with electric stuff. He retired his first six batters faced, four via strikeout and all coming on the nasty splitter that garnered rave reviews during Spring Training. Among the punchouts was a 95 mph split that produced an off-balance swing from Mike Trout for strike three.

Of course, a caveat to Fujinami’s dazzling stuff has been command issues that were well-documented in his time pitching in Japan. It showed up in spurts throughout his Cactus League outings and reared its ugly head again in the third inning.

A leadoff walk by Luis Rengifo was the first of three free passes Fujinami would issue in what ended up an 11-run frame for the Halos, their first such inning since 2016. In that rough sequence, he recorded just one out and gave up five hits, including an RBI single to Shohei Ohtani, whom he shares a history with dating back to their days as high school phenoms who were part of the same Nippon Professional Baseball Draft class in 2012.

Jake Lamb’s two-run single signaled the end for Fujinami, who exited after just 2 1/3 innings. The end result: Eight runs allowed on five hits and three walks with four strikeouts.

It was a performance not too atypical from what the A’s saw from him this spring, as he racked up 20 strikeouts but also issued 17 walks in 18 2/3 innings.

"He dominated hitters with his fastball and split,” A’s manager Mark Kotsay said of Fujinami. "Third inning, the 3-2 pitch to Rengifo was a slider and we walked the leadoff guy. Then it just seemed to spiral on him there. Kind of went away from the fastball-split combo to the slider. I think that pitch got hit a little bit."

Three of Fujinami’s five hits allowed in the third were on the slider. Meanwhile, he shied away from the splitter that perplexed hitters early on. Of his 32 pitches in the inning, he threw the split only six times.

Fujinami was admittedly disappointed over his lack of fastball usage in the third, since it had been working so well.

“I threw too much offspeed in that third inning,” Fujinami said through interpreter Issei Kamada. “I should have thrown more fastballs in that inning. I still need to learn the pitch sequences. Next time, I’ll try to [be better] about sequences.”

While the outcome was not ideal, the obvious high level of raw talent Fujinami possesses was evident. In addition to the splitter, he showed off a fastball that maxed out at 99.6 mph and consistently hit 99 mph throughout.

Fujinami’s first spring outing came against these same Angels. From their perspective, the pitcher they saw on Saturday was much more polished than the one they faced in February.

“Watching the tape on Fujinami from Spring Training, he didn't land that many breaking balls for strikes [but] he certainly did today,” said Angels manager Phil Nevin. “We saw what he has the potential to do in those first two innings.”

The undesirable final result still doesn't take away from what was a dream realized for Fujinami, who at times never thought this day would come after going through highs and lows over the course of 10 seasons in Japan.

Sharing the moment with him was his mother, who flew out from Japan for the special occasion and was shown several times on the television broadcast living and dying with every pitch her son threw.

Fujinami is officially a Major Leaguer. The next step is to establish himself, and he’ll get another shot to work toward that in his next start against the Rays next Saturday.

“It could have been better,” Fujinami said. “I’m glad to get on the big league mound, but just getting on the big league mound is not good enough. Next time, I’ll try to do better.”