Fujinami goes toe-to-toe with Ohtani in A's debut

March 1st, 2023

MESA, Ariz. -- expected to battle nerves in his highly anticipated A’s debut, which was only amplified once it was announced that the pitching matchup would come against Japanese countryman Shohei Ohtani.

If Fujinami was nervous once first pitch came around, he certainly did a good job of hiding it.

Making his first Cactus League start in Oakland’s 11-5 loss to the Angels at Hohokam Stadium on Tuesday afternoon, Fujinami turned in a performance that matched the excitement generated upon his signing this offseason. The right-hander showed off an electric arsenal over two scoreless innings, striking out three batters on 39 pitches.

Fujinami only needed 13 pitches to get through the first, which saw Angels hitters consistently late on a fastball that sat at 97-98 mph throughout his outing. His first-inning punchouts of David Fletcher and Jake Lamb both came on what catcher described as "nasty" splitters, which were thrown in the 91-92 mph range.

The knock on Fujinami from his time in Japan was that his command can sometimes get out of whack. Some of that was evident in the second inning, which he began by walking the first three batters -- including a four-pitch walk to Trey Cabbage that loaded the bases with no outs.

After a visit from A’s pitching coach Scott Emerson, though, Fujinami settled in, notching a strikeout on a well-placed 97 mph fastball that froze Aaron Whitefield and inducing an inning-ending double play against Livan Soto.

“I felt really good in the first inning, but I was trying to do too much in the second,” Fujinami said through interpreter Issei Kamada. “I kind of lost my command. But in the middle of the [second inning] I got the feel back.”

In anticipation of any miscommunication that could arise while working together for the first time, Langeliers sat down with Fujinami for lunch before the game and mapped out a plan for how they wanted to approach hitters. For a first time out, Langeliers felt like the two were on the same page for most of it.

“The more I catch him and the more we work together, the more I’m going to start to think like him,” Langeliers said. “We’ll start attacking hitters and thinking the same way. Today went really smooth. ... He had a really good first inning, executing a lot of pitches, and came out wanting to do more than that in the second inning. His stuff’s good enough. He’s good enough. Just relax a little bit.”

It’s understandable if Fujinami might have wanted to put on a show. Tuesday’s matchup with Ohtani came with much fanfare, particularly back home in Japan, for the two first-round selections in the 2012 Nippon Professional Baseball draft who share a history that dates back to their days as high school phenoms.

Special accommodations even had to be made at Hohokam for the larger-than-usual media contingent, which included 40 members of Japanese media.

“It didn’t bother me,” Fujinami said of the extra attention. “It’s just a spring game. But I know Japanese fans were looking forward to us facing each other. I thought this game showed Japanese fans some good entertainment.”

There’s a strong chance Fujinami will face the Angels again in about a month -- the A’s open the regular season March 30 by hosting the Angels for a three-game series at the Coliseum. From the opposing side, Fujinami left a strong first impression.

“He throws hard, that's for sure,” said Angels manager Phil Nevin. “First time over here, you know the eyes are on you. You'll be nervous. ... He's got a good arm. He lost control in the second inning, but good pitchers get those outs when they need.”

Fujinami came away from the outing with things to work on for the next time out. Despite his splitter looking practically unhittable on the first two strikeouts, he said he would like to be able to throw it as a means of getting ahead in the count as well.

Based on what Fujinami showed Tuesday, the A’s are optimistic about what a more refined version of the right-hander might look like as he continues to develop and adjust throughout Spring Training.

“Shohei was on the other side -- who is one of the best players in the world,” Emerson said. “I know that Fuji wants to be a special player. He’s working so hard this camp to prove to not only other people, but to himself, that he is this type of player. It’s fun to watch him work each and every day.”