GOODYEAR, Ariz. — Shogo Akiyama gave Cincinnati Reds fans a small taste of what he can provide at the top of the batting order and in the outfield Sunday in his first spring training game with the team.
Akiyama, hitting leadoff and playing center field, lined the second pitch he saw from Chicago White Sox starter Dylan Cease into right field for a single. In the top of the third inning, he made a running catch going to his left on a sinking line drive from Nicky Delmonico.
The five-time Pacific League All-Star is the first player from Japan to sign a major league contract with the Reds. At least a dozen Japanese media members tracked his every move before and after his day at Goodyear Ballpark in the Reds’ spring training opener.
The perception of Akiyama in Japan is that he isn’t on the same level as Los Angeles Angels two-way player Shohei Ohtani or former Seattle Mariners outfielder Ichiro Suzuki, both of whom took the majors by storm when they arrived in the U.S. But Akiyama holds the Japanese league record for hits in a season with 216, set in 2015.
“I was very nervous, but definitely relieved that I got my first hit,” the left-handed-hitting Akiyama said through a translator. “It was also good that I was able to see a lot of pitches.”
After four innings in the field, he grounded into a fielder’s choice in his third and final at-bat. But reaching first allowed him to try stealing a base, which he’d done 112 times in his nine-year career in Japan.
“It wasn’t a goal, but I just wanted to see if I could do it,” Akiyama said. “To see if I have a chance. It was good that I was able to run it out.”
Akiyama was thrown out at second base to end the fourth inning and his day.
The Reds signed the 31-year-old Akiyama to a three-year, $21 million contract in the offseason, winning the bidding for his services as part of a roster makeover that the team hopes will help it contend in the National League Central.
While it’s not a certainty that Akiyama will be the Reds’ regular center fielder, his ability to get on base is something Cincinnati was seeking at the top of its order.
He’s clearly still learning and adjusting both on the field and off. After his single, he was almost picked off when leaning too far off first base.
Reds fans are adjusting to Akiyama, too. He got light applause when introduced in the starting lineup, slapping hands with the Reds mascot as he took his place next to manager David Bell along the third-base line.
“He looked great. He looked comfortable,” Bell said. “I know it’s just spring training, but it’s kind of nice to get a hit in your first at-bat to kind of take the pressure off. He said he was nervous before the game. I didn’t really see that. There’s some extra feelings there for him, I’m sure, but it was nice to get into the flow of the game really quick.”
The Reds hope Akiyama can provide the kind of production — or close to it — that he put up in Japan. His career numbers include a .301 batting average, 116 home runs, 513 RBIs and 1,405 hits.