Cubs waiting to put Fujikawa in the ninth-inning spotlight


Cubs waiting to put Fujikawa in the ninth-inning spotlight

Kyuji Fujikawa finished lunch with Cubs officials and began touring Wrigley Field. The sense of history reminded him of Koshien Stadium, which also made ivy part of its design and became known as a kind of birthplace for baseball in his country.

This was just before Thanksgiving, and after 12 seasons with the Hanshin Tigers, Fujikawa believed he was ready for a new challenge and wanted to test himself against the best hitters in the world.

As a teenager, Fujikawa watched Hideo Nomo become a star with the Los Angeles Dodgers. He saw Daisuke Matsuzaka whos the same age (32) flame out with the Boston Red Sox. That motivated him to prove he could pitch in the United States.

Team president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer made an aggressive pitch, and they found Fujikawa to be an interesting guy, someone whos curious and asks good questions.

They could sell a cosmopolitan city. Remember that even if it didnt work out here for Kosuke Fukudome, the ex-Cub still appreciated Chicagos strong Japanese community, so much that he once bought a condo on Lake Shore Drive.

All those factors brought Fujikawa back to Wrigley Field on Friday, holding up a pinstriped No. 11 jersey with Hoyer as flashbulbs popped inside the clubhouse.

From that day on in my head, it was: Cubs, Cubs, Cubs, Fujikawa said.

Don Nomura, Fujikawas agent in Japan, served as the interpreter in front of at least 10 television cameras. Arn Tellem, his American representative, stood off to the side next to Epstein. Fujikawa speaks enough broken English to be able to communicate with his teammates, but he didnt want to make a mistake during his press conference.

Fujikawa said all the right things, that he will follow orders from the manager, that it doesnt matter when he pitches. Hes been described as a good guy, someone who will get along and wont have a huge entourage (other than the translator and trainer the Cubs plan to hire). He just wants to get outs.

The Cubs already have a closer in Carlos Marmol, and they met with his agent, Paul Kinzer, this week at the Opryland Hotel during the winter meetings in Nashville, Tenn. Epstein, Hoyer and manager Dale Sveum have repeatedly said: Marmol is our closer.

Obviously, that could change at some point during the final year of Marmols contract. But right now the plan is for Marmol to earn his 9.8 million in the ninth inning.

The Cubs would like Fujikawa to get acclimated to a new team and a new country by working as a setup guy and not pitching in the World Baseball Classic, like he did in 2006 and 2009, helping Japan win the title each time.

Even if Fujikawa isnt the closer on Opening Day 2013, the opportunity figures to be there over the life of his two-year, 9.5 million contract, which contains a vestingclub option for 2015. For what its worth, per club policy, he didnt get a no-trade clause.

The primary goal (is) to have him here as part of the solution, Epstein said. Were a big believer in his talent, as well as his character, so we think hell be a positive influence on our younger pitchers and hell be a real stabilizer for our bullpen. Were not signing him at all with the intent to trade him. Obviously, well see what happens. Hopefully, the team performs well and hes pitching very important games for us.

It cost Epstein, Hoyer and the rest of Bostons front office more than 100 million to import Matsuzaka, who helped the Red Sox win the 2007 World Series but otherwise turned out to be a bust.

This clearly is a low-risk investment. Hoyer mentioned Red Sox reliever Hideki Okajima, who gave up a home run to the first batter he faced on Opening Day 2007, didnt allow another run until May 22 and went to the All-Star Game that summer.

Fujikawa notched 220 saves in the Central League, with 914 strikeouts against only 207 walks. If his career 0.96 WHIP translates, it should make for some smoother late innings, and it wasnt hard to draw the contrast with Marmol.

Hes been known in Japan as a guy that can really pitch with his fastball, Hoyer said. Hes not a guy that tricks you. He comes right after guys and thats really important. Guys that rely too much on trickery can often be guys the league figures out quickly.

Our hope (is) that hell be able to pitch to a game plan and be able to establish himself and have a nice run.

A black suit, white dress shirt and a royal blue tie plus a new Cubs hat and jersey covered Fujikawas 6-foot, 190-pound frame as he posed for photos outside the dugout. He didnt seem to mind playing along with the cameras.

Wrigley Field felt cold, gray and empty. Even with all that experience, the Cubs arent looking to throw Fujikawa into the heat of the ninth inning right away.

I know that the team is very young, he said. I will try to lead the young players and compete to win for the Cubs. I know what they did last season, but hopefully we can do better next year. I would like to be part of the building process for the Cubs future.

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Clayton Kershaw stands between Cubs and World Series: ‘To be the best, you got to beat the best’

Clayton Kershaw stands between Cubs and World Series: ‘To be the best, you got to beat the best’

Clayton Kershaw stands between the Cubs and the World Series, a possibility that left veteran catcher David Ross thinking about Ric Flair inside Dodger Stadium’s visiting clubhouse late Thursday night: To be The Man, you got to beat The Man. 

“Woo!” That’s how the Cubs like to punctuate their postgame celebration routine, channeling the professional wrestling legend in a ritual with so much sensory overload that the fog machine set off fire alarms throughout the underground Wrigley Field lair…after a win in the middle of August. “Woo!” 
The Cubs left Los Angeles one win away from their first National League pennant since 1945, and with two chances to pull it off this weekend at Wrigley Field, beginning on Saturday night in Game 6. So imagine how this crew would trash the Party Room if they beat Kershaw, a three-time Cy Young Award winner and 2014 NL MVP. 

“The guy competes,” manager Joe Maddon said. “It’s pretty much like mechanics be damned, it’s just about me beating you somehow. 

“He’s got a good fastball that he locates. He doesn’t walk people. He’s got a dynamic curve and slider. And he’s got deception. He’s a little bit funky, and that’s got to be hard to pick up. The ball gets on you pretty quickly, and then he commands it. 

“So there’s nothing you could possibly ask for that he doesn’t already have.”

Now we’ll see if something clicked while the Cubs turned a 2-1 deficit into a 3-2 NLCS lead – handling rookie starters Julio Urias and Kenta Maeda and the softer parts of the Los Angeles bullpen – or if those 18 runs combined in Games 4 and 5 were a mirage.

In 16-plus innings so far, the Cubs still haven’t scored a run off Kershaw, if-necessary Game 7 lefty starter Rich Hill or dominating closer Kenley Jansen, who got this review from Maddon: “He’s like a 100-pound heavier version of Mariano Rivera. He’s the bigger man with the same kind of stuff.”

[SHOP: Buy a "Try Not to Suck" shirt with proceeds benefiting Joe Maddon's Respect 90 Foundation & other Cubs Charities]

Why are the Cubs so confident? Remember, this offense scored 808 runs during the regular season, more than every NL team except for the Colorado Rockies. This lineup knocked out October legend Madison Bumgarner after five innings in the divisional round (though pitcher Jake Arrieta delivered the three-run homer in a game the San Francisco Giants would win in extra innings). 

The Cubs should at least have a better idea of what to expect after getting that up-close view during a 1-0 loss in Game 2, the end of a 10-day period where the Dodgers used Kershaw for three starts and a division-series save against the Washington Nationals.  

Ben Zobrist – a veteran of 11 postseason series – explained: “His heater – as straight as it is – (comes from) the deception of his funky windup. You think you’re there, and it’s right above your barrel.”

“We’ll all be ready to go,” All-Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “Any time you see a guy back-to-back, it’s always to our advantage as hitters. We just have to go out there and play our game and have good at-bats off a left-handed pitcher. 

“I know it’s Clayton Kershaw, but we really got to just focus in on having good at-bats.” 

The Dodgers still have to beat a leading Cy Young contender (Kyle Hendricks) and last year’s award winner (Arrieta) on back-to-back nights in a building that will be shaking if the Cubs take an early lead with a Kris Bryant home run. And until this October, Kershaw had a reputation for underachieving in the playoffs.

“We got to battle,” Bryant said. “We know Kershaw likes to keep his pitch count down, because he wants to pitch the whole game. He’s a competitor, so we got to find a way to work counts and not swing at the pitches that he wants us to.

“Any time you got the best in the game going at you, it’s a challenge. And it’s going to be fun.” 

That’s exactly how the Cubs have approached everything this year, with an Embrace-The-Target attitude and all this Flair for the dramatic. 

“To be the best, you got to beat the best,” Rizzo said.