Shun Okita finally arrived at Texas Rangers camp Monday to begin his duties as Japanese interpreter. His main subject, meanwhile, is in Florida for Tommy John surgery scheduled for Tuesday.
The delayed approval of Okita’s work visa meant that he missed the Yu Darvish elbow saga as it unfolded last week. But Okita still has work to do this spring and, most likely, in 2015 with another pitcher from Japan.
On Okita’s first day, reliever Kyuji Fujikawa took the mound in a minor league game, and the media needed Okita’s help to hear from one of the greatest closers in the history of Nippon Professional Baseball.
While Fujikawa is in camp on a major league deal that will pay him $1 million plus incentives, he hasn’t officially been given a spot in the season-opening bullpen. He has to prove himself, something he already feels compelled to do after his own Tommy John surgery wrecked his MLB debut in 2013.
“I have a lot of pride in myself, too,” Fujikawa said. “I really have to look at it that way.”
The good news is that Fujikawa, who signed in December, feels like he did in 2011 and 2012 before he was forced to have his ulnar collateral ligament repaired in 2013 during an aborted first season as the Chicago Cubs closer.
Fujikawa saved 219 games in seven seasons as the full-time closer for the Hanshin Tigers, twice leading the Central League in saves. He pitched in the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and in the World Baseball Classic in 2006 and 2009.
But he lasted only 12 innings in 2013 before his elbow gave way. He returned late last season, logging 13 innings over 15 games with a 4.85 ERA. The Cubs got 25 innings, two saves and a 5.04 ERA for their two-year deal worth $9.5 million.
So far this spring, though, Fujikawa said that he is fully healthy, and he has shown glimpses of the pitcher he was as a four-time All-Star in Japan.
“He was one of the best of all-time, from what we understand,” pitching coach Mike Maddux said. “In the short look that we’ve had, he’s a prototypical Asian pitcher. He’s got that invisible split that hitters just don’t seem to recognize. He’s similar to some of the guys we’ve seen in the past.”
Maddux mentioned Koji Uehara, the Boston Red Sox closer who was a setup man for the Rangers in 2011 and 2012. The split-fingered fastball is Fujikawa’s best pitch, and he changes speeds with it. He also has a fastball, a slider and a changeup.
He allowed one run Monday in one inning of a Double A game, but he has thrown a scoreless inning in each of his two Cactus League games. He’s not assured a roster spot, though he has big-game late-inning experience while his competition is mostly untested. But he will lock one down as long as he is competitive the rest of camp.
“It’s been very good,” said Fujikawa, 34. “Last year I had worries about my elbow and physical health, but this year I’m really healthy. I’m able to command my fastballs down in the zone. That’s one thing that has improved.”
Fujikawa also counseled Darvish last week as he contemplated Tommy John surgery. Fujikawa suggested that Darvish take his time in his recovery, and expects that Darvish will take a professional approach to the rehab.
“He’s really positive, so I’m really not worried about him at all,” said Fujikawa, who had his surgery with Dr. James Andrews on May 30, 2013.
Fujikawa doesn’t seem worried about his chances at making the Rangers roster. He wants to show he belongs. He also wants to show that he can be the pitcher he was in Japan, not the injury-plagued reliever with the Cubs.
Okita needs something to do this season, too.
“My job is to face hitters, and get the hitter out who is in front of me,” Fujikawa said. “That’s all I’m focusing on.”
Jeff Wilson, 817-390-7760