Nakajima doesn't look ready yet, but he's improving

Nakajima doesn't look ready yet, but he's improving
March 26, 2013, 12:15 pm
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The most important part is that I am a member of the team. I just want to contribute however when given the opportunity.
—Hiro Nakajima

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PHOENIX, Ariz. -- Hiro Nakajima is under more pressure than any player at Oakland Athletics camp. He knows it, the A's know it and so does the massive media contingent that follows him.

With less than a week before Opening Day he just doesn't look quite ready. Aside from a home run that he hit in a minor league game, he hasn't collected a hit in his last eight Cactus League games and is out of the starting lineup for two days in a row for this first time this spring. Nakajima is hitting .150 with one double, four walks and 11 strikeouts in 16 games. He will come off the bench on Tuesday against the Indians.

"The ability is there, he's just doesn't look like at this point like he's quite as comfortable as he wants to be," A's manager Bob Melvin said. "Sometimes when you are trying to make a first impression you're trying to do to much."

With the start of the season around the corner, Jed Lowrie looks like a big league shortstop, Nakajima does not. That doesn't mean Nakajima can't get there. It just hasn't happened yet. Melvin thinks Nakajima could be a multi-hit game away from finally breaking out at the plate.

Other than second baseman Scott Sizemore, who missed the 2012 season, Nakajima is being given the most slack at camp -- and for good reason. The 30-year-old Japanese shortstop has to cope with learning how to communicate on and off the field with his teammates, how to face a league full of new opposing pitchers, and how to play behind his own pitchers. He's doing it while under a microscope from his new fans in Oakland and the fans back in Japan.

The slow start to the spring has him pressing.

"I would have to admit that there's a possibility that I am putting more pressure on it than necessary," Nakajima said through interpreter Hiroo Nishi. "But the level of tiredness and exhaustion that I've been feeling has relieved a lot."

The results may not be showing yet, but there are signs of improvement. Nakajima hit a homer in a minor league game on Saturday. He says he is seeing the ball much better at the plate -- the result of a tweak in his swing that hitting coach Chili Davis helped him implement.

"I'm trying to get him to track the ball better, see the ball with both eyes, and be shorter to the ball inside," Davis said. "When he does things right, the ball carries off the bat. It's not like he doesn't have that juice."

That home run was the first sign of life from Nakajima's bat since the change in his swing was implemented. It was also the first time all spring that Nakajima says he hit the ball on the sweet spot. It was his first home run in America, but he hit 20 or more home runs in four different seasons in Japan.

"You look at his track record in Japan and there's a reason we signed him and brought him here," Melvin said.

Nakajima is signed to a two-year deal with a club option for a third season. He could benefit from getting more at-bats. If the A's were to start him in Triple-A he could be in the lineup daily. In Oakland he'd have to share time with Lowrie. It would also free up a roster spot for Nate Freiman, or give the A's the option to platoon Scott Sizemore and Eric Sogard at second base.

"The most important part is that I am a member of the team," Nakajima said. "I just want to contribute however when given the opportunity."

The team isn't leaning on the three-time gold glove Nippon Professional Baseball League shortstop to contribute at second base. He played three innings in a minor league game there, but it was a short-lived experiment.

"The guy's had enough thrown at him and now he has to go play three innings at second base," Melvin said. "Everyone else has been playing different positions so we just tried it a little bit with him. I'm not sure that's something we'll do again with him."

The A's will give Nakajima every chance to succeed. His coaches have praised him for his work ethic and willingness to listen and implement their suggestions. One thing is sure -- he isn't letting the immense pressure ruin his personality.

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