A's find their shortstop 'Hiro'

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A's find their shortstop 'Hiro'

OAKLAND -- In front of a room stuffed with media, he placed an A's cap on his head and buttoned up a home white jersey with his name and number (three) on the back. He claimed modestly that donning the Oakland Athletics jersey for the first time made him "speechless," but he was anything but that.

As Hiroyuki Nakajima took to the podium flanked by his new general manager and an interpreter, the freshly signed Japanese shortstop quickly won over the media and fan base by delivering an opening statement in English.

"Hi Oakland," he said. "My name is Hiroyuki Nakajima, but you can call me 'Hiro.' I am honored to be here today and thankful for everyone coming today."

You don't often hear an applause at a media conference, but this elicited such a reaction. It was a moment that he was extremely nervous for.

"I actually thought of this opening remark last night and during my sleep I was mumbling it over, and over again," Nakajima said through interpreter Hiroo Nishi. "Just outside that door over there I was just practicing over, and over."

"In my dreams I was practicing it," he added.

He certainly didn't look nervous. Soon thereafter Nakajima stunned those in attendance by saying through his interpreter that he signed with the A's because general manager Billy Beane was "extremely sexy and cool." At the end of the press conference he said -- again in English -- that he wants to learn the "Bernie dance."

Yeah…he'll fit in just fine with the A's loose clubhouse.

Nakajima passed the eye test, the medical tests, and immediately ingratiated himself with the fans and media. But can he play ball? In the end that will be the ultimate factor in deciding if this signing is a successful one.

The thirty-year-old veteran of the Japan Pacific League is an eight-time all-star and has won three Gold Gloves. He has a .302 career average in Japan. He is being counted on to fill the last remaining void on the roster of the defending American League West champions. He will feel the pressure to perform on the game's biggest stage -- Major League Baseball.

The A's feel confident he will be able to succeed in Oakland. They have been watching him closely for years. The A's front office says Nakajima is anything but a backup plan they merely turned to after Stephen Drew was signed by the Red Sox. In fact, assistant general manager David Forst said on 95.7 The Game that Nakajima was in an MRI tube getting his physical done when the news that Drew and Boston agreed on a contract leaked out.

Oakland was interested in retaining Drew's services, but all along they had been meeting with Nakajima's representatives. They spoke at the Winter Meetings and remained in touch.

"We were on him early," Beane said. "The more things we uncovered, the longer we got into the winter, the more we realized this is the guy."

The A's are familiar with making splashy international signings. There were a lot of questions surrounding Yoenis Cespedes when he signed with the A's last offseason, and the Cuban-born slugger now looks like a superstar in the making. It is hard to project or expect Nakajima, who hit .311 with 13 home runs, 74 RBI, 52 walks, and a .382 on-base percentage in 136 games last season in Japan, to be a dominating force like Cespedes. They just need him to play solid defense and provide adequate offensive production from the shortstop position.

The track record for Japanese infielders isn't exactly sterling. The guy Nakajima replaced on the Seibu Lions, Kaz Matsui, had huge numbers in Japan before underwhelming in seven seasons in America. Tsuyoshi Nishioka was a batting champion and star in Japan, but flopped with the Twins and was released just two years into his three-year contract. Akinori Iwamura had a few good years with the Rays, but has struggled since. He last appeared in the Major Leagues in 2010 for the A's and hit .129 in 10 games.

Writing a person off because of the shortcomings of others in the past is the type of broad stroke the A's front office doesn't believe in.

"I think that's really individual," Beane said. "To generalize and make that statement is a bit unfair to the individual player."

The experiences Japanese players had in American baseball were also a factor that Nakajima looked into while making his decision to sign with the A's. He reached out to Ichiro Suzuki, and the aforementioned Matsui and Iwamura before making his final decision.

There is reason to believe Nakajima is different. He does have a taste of the big league spotlight, after all. He played in the 2009 World Baseball Classic for the Japanese national team. He also played for Japan in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. He has, however, elected to sit out the upcoming WBC games because he wants to do everything it takes to prepare for the upcoming season with his new teammates.

"I'm just very, very much excited to go to Oakland's camp as soon as possible," Nakajima said.

Nakajima has 141 stolen bases in 11 seasons. The most bags he has swiped in a single season is 25. Yet, he gave a nod to the A's past and present by mentioning that he can't wait to work with A's great Rickey Henderson, and learn from Coco Crisp during Spring Training.

Much like most of the A's fans have only seen Nakajima in action in Youtube videos, the Japanese shortstop has also admired the work of many of the current MLB infielders from afar. According to Nakajima, there is a highlight reel put together and broadcast in Japan every year containing the best plays from the Major Leagues. He feels a little pressure to perform like the current stars of the game but won't let it change the way he handles himself on the field.

"As much as I want to impersonate and copy those amazing plays, fundamentals are very important," Nakajima said. "I really want to stick to the basics."

Every second of available tape is being scrutinized by scouts, and analysts trying to determine whether or not this 5'11" and 198 pound ballplayer's skills can translate in the big leagues. There are different park factors, different pitchers, and even different baseballs in America. Nakajima doesn't seem concerned that his game will translate. The biggest difference he is worried about?

"The fact that there's not many bathtubs around in America," Nakajima said. "That's one of the possible challenges that I'll have to face."

He has the confidence, the tools, and a sense of humor to back it up. He also has one more thing working in his favor.

"We also think he is sexy and cool," Beane said. "That's what we are about here in Oakland, being sexy and cool."

A's lineup: Healy moves into three spot, LaMarre gets first start

A's lineup: Healy moves into three spot, LaMarre gets first start

Bob Melvin has issued his lineup as the A's try to snap a five-game losing streak in Game 2 of a series against the Astros.

Oakland A's (10-13)

1. Jaff Decker (L) RF
2. Jed Lowrie (S) 2B
3. Ryon Healy (R) DH
4. Khris Davis (R) LF
5. Yonder Alonso (L) 1B
6. Trevor Plouffe (R) 3B
7. Stephen Vogt (L) C
8. Chad Pinder (R) SS
9. Ryan LaMarre (R) CF
Andrew Triggs -- RHP 


Houston Astros (15-8)

1. George Springer (R) CF
2. Josh Reddick (L) RF
3. Jose Altuve (R) 2B
4. Carlos Correa (R) SS
5. Carlos Beltran (S) LF
6. Yuli Gurriel (R) 1B
7. Brian McCann (L) C
8. Evan Gattis (R) DH
9. Alex Bregman (R) 3B
Joe Musgrove -- RHP

Reddick gets best of old roommate Healy, and the A's

Reddick gets best of old roommate Healy, and the A's

HOUSTON — Enduring a five-game losing streak is tough enough on its own.

Watching a former teammate play a part in prolonging the misery is worse.

Josh Reddick wasn’t the most dominant player on the field Friday for the Astros, but he picked his spots to make his presence felt, and that added a little salt to the wound for the A’s in a 9-4 defeat that was their fifth in a row. They’ve now lost 10 straight times to Houston.

Reddick was mad at himself after not making the play on Ryon Healy’s double in the sixth inning. He got another chance in the eighth and robbed his former roommate with a terrific catch as he slammed into the wall to end the inning. That stranded two runners and preserved what was a 7-4 lead at the time.

“Any time you’re playing against your former team you wanna do well against them. Beating them makes it a little bit sweeter,” Reddick said. “But when you can make a catch against a guy you became pretty good buddies with in a tight situation, it adds more to that.”

After Healy got his first big league call-up last July, and before the A’s traded Reddick to the Dodgers on Aug. 1, Reddick invited the rookie to move into his house as he cut his teeth in the bigs.

“I’m going to be giving Ryon a lot of crap, I guess you could say,” Reddick said afterward. “He gave me a little signal and finger wave and shook his head on the (double). I got him back and a little bit of payback.”

Reddick, who signed a four-year $52 million free agent deal with Houston in the offseason, was a pest to the A’s in more unconventional ways too. Twice he reached base on catcher’s interference calls when his bat hit the mitt of Stephen Vogt, another of Reddick’s closest friends on the A’s. It happened in the bottom of the first and contributed to the Astros’ three-run rally that tied the game off Jharel Cotton after the A’s had grabbed a 3-0 lead on Khris Davis’ three-run homer.

Vogt talked about both interference plays with mild disgust, more upset with the situation itself than Reddick personally.

“Typically I’m pretty far back behind the batter," Vogt said. “Reddick, I guess, has a pretty long swing when he’s trying to go the other way. … It’s just one of those freak things that obviously I’m not real thrilled about. It’s just frustrating. You don’t see it very often. It’s not really how you swing the bat typically, but he does a good job going the other way, and it’s on me. I’ve gotta make sure I’m far enough back and not reaching for the ball.”

As for Reddick’s important catch in the eighth, Vogt said:

“It’s hard to see him in a different uniform, and I know he loved it here as well. It’s hard to see him playing against us 19 times. To see him making catches like that, it’s not very much fun when he’s not wearing green.”

However, the A’s have more pressing issues than getting stung by old friends. They’ve struck out 57 times over the past five games, and with each day that passes, it’s increasingly clear how much they miss the speed and playmaking ability of center fielder Rajai Davis, as well as the offensive production of shortstop Marcus Semien. Both are on the disabled list, Davis for the short term with a strained hamstring and Semien likely for a couple of months due to wrist surgery.

Cotton wasn’t sharp, allowing a career-high 10 hits and failing to protect two early leads he was given. Those are the growing pains that will come for a rookie pitcher. What the A’s can’t afford are three-error nights like they had Friday and continuing to whiff at their current rate.

“When we went through our winning streak, we played real clean games, and now we’re a little shoddy,” manager Bob Melvin said. “There’s a psychological play that goes with that. When you’re not making plays and giving extra outs, it makes it tougher on pitchers and tougher mentally.”