Tampa Bay Rays’ Yoshitomo Tsutsugo, of Japan, second from right, celebrates with Hunter Renfroe (11) after Tsutsugo hit a two-run home run off Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Hyun-Jin Ryu during the fifth inning of a baseball game Friday, July 24, 2020, in St. Petersburg, Fla. Looking on is Blue Jays catcher Danny Jansen. (AP Photo/Chris O’Meara)

By Carter Cromwell

The Major League Baseball season finally started a week ago, and – in general – the Japanese imports have started slowly.

There are nine Japanese players in MLB at the moment – six with previous big-league experience and three rookies. 

The three newcomers to MLB are outfielder Shogo Akiyama of the Cincinnati Reds, infielder Yoshi Tsutsugo of the Tampa Bay Rays and pitcher Shun Yamaguchi of the Toronto Blue Jays.

Akiyama previously played for the Seibu Lions and set the NPB record for hits in a single season with 216 in 2015.  The 32-year-old signed a three-year, $21 million contract with the Reds in January.  In his first week with the Reds, he’s hitting .267 with one RBI. 

Tsutsugo, 28, last was with the Yokohama DeNA Baystars.  He signed a two-year, $12 million contract with the Rays in December 2019.  So far in the young season, he’s batting .227 with a home run and five RBI. 

The 33-year-old Yamaguchi had two difficult outings, absorbing losses to Tampa Bay and the Washington Nationals.  

In his MLB debut against the Rays, he came on in the 10th inning with Toronto holding a 5-4 lead. With a runner already on second base because of the new extra-inning rule, Yamaguchi then walked a batter and allowed a two-run, walk-off triple to Kevin Kiermaier.  Three days later, he entered a scoreless game against Washington in the ninth inning and gave up four runs – three earned – along with two hits and two walks in a 4-0 defeat.

Of the six veteran Japanese players in MLB, pitcher Kenta Maeda of the Minnesota Twins fared best during the first week, going five innings in his first outing for the Twins and allowing four hits and two runs in a victory over the Chicago White Sox. 

At the other end of the spectrum, the Los Angeles Angels’ Shohei Ohtani made his first pitching appearance since undergoing Tommy John surgery and failed to retire any of the six Oakland Athletics batters he faced, allowing three hits, three walks and five earned runs.

At the plate, Ohtani is hitting .174 with two home runs and 7 RBI.

Elsewhere, Chicago Cubs’ starter Yu Darvish went four innings in a loss to the Milwaukee Brewers, giving up six hits and three earned runs.  Darvish was scheduled to pitch against Cincinnati on Thursday, but the game was postponed because of rain.  Meanwhile, pitcher Yusei Kikuchi of the Seattle Mariners went 3.2 innings in a no-decision against the Houston Astros, who got five hits, four walks and five earned runs against him.  

Masahiro Tanaka of the New York Yankees hasn’t pitched this season after getting hit in the head by a Giancarlo Stanton line drive in an intrasquad game on July 4.  He’s begun throwing some batting practice, but it’s not certain when he’ll see game action.

Yoshihisa Hirano of the Mariners also has yet to pitch.  He reportedly tested positive for the coronavirus in late June, and Seattle then placed him on the injured list July 14 without disclosing the reason. 

NOTES: 61 Japanese-born players have played in the Major Leagues . . . Of that total, 43 have been pitchers, 17 position players and one – Ohtani – a two-way performer . . . The first was relief pitcher Masanori Murakami, who debuted with San Francisco on Sept. 1, 1964 and pitched for the Giants through the 1965 season.  After a dispute with NPB, the Giants sent Murakami back to his Japanese team, the Nankai Hawks, and no other Japanese player appeared in the majors until Hideo Nomo debuted with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1995 . . . Twelve Japanese players have made MLB all-star teams . . . Ichiro Suzuki is the most decorated of the Japanese imports, with Rookie-of-the-Year, MVP, All-Star MVP, Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards on his resume. 

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