Shogo Akiyama on return of baseball: ‘It’s great to be back’

Reds outfielder Shogo Akiyama on Friday, July 3, 2020, at Great American Ball Park. David Jablonski/Staff
Reds outfielder Shogo Akiyama on Friday, July 3, 2020, at Great American Ball Park. David Jablonski/Staff

New Reds outfielder spent last three months in Los Angeles

Shogo Akiyama spent the entire time between the suspension of spring training in March and the start of workouts in Great American Ball Park in Los Angeles. He worried everyone would forget about the new Cincinnati Reds outfielder, the first Japanese player ever signed by the franchise.

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There’s little chance of that in the United States or in Japan. Akiyama will have his own media contingent covering his every at-bat in Cincinnati, though he saw Los Angeles Angels pitcher Shohei Ohtani’s press conference at the start of Summer Camp and knows he’s not that popular.

The Reds signed Akiyama in January, and he hit .321 (9 for 28) in 10 games in spring training. He's competing for playing time in a crowded outfield that also includes returners Jesse Winker, Nick Senzel, Phillip Ervin and Aristides Aquino and another newcomer, Nick Castellanos.

“It’s finally hitting me that I’m going to be playing in Cincinnati,” Akiyama said through an interpreter Sunday. “It’s going to be great to be back after being away from a few months. I’m just trying to get in a groove here.”

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Akiyama hit .301 with 20 home runs and 12 stolen bases and an on-base percentage of .392 last season with the Seibu Lions. He played his entire nine-year career in Japan until signing with the Reds.

“The thing that’s so impressive about him is just his professionalism and his dedication to his craft,” Reds manager David Bell said. “The whole time we were off, he stayed dedicated and was still approaching it every day as if he was going to get the call to report. He’s going to be ahead of the game. It’s very refreshing how he goes about it. He clearly loves the game. He also has a great outlook not only on enjoying the game but seeing it as a true craft and profession. That rubs off on everyone. He’s in a good place. He’s happy. He loves Cincinnati so far.”

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Akiyama said he practiced for three hours a day five days a week in Los Angeles, waiting for baseball to return. He visited Great American Ball Park in January when the Reds introduced him at a press conference but didn’t get to hit there until this week.

The Reds held their first team workout Friday.

“I think I was able to relax and hit comfortably — more than expected,” Akiyama said. “Being able to hit in a ballpark without a roof has been good. I think by the time I get used to it, the season is going to be starting.”

Akiyama has mostly played center field in his career. Senzel earned the majority of the playing time there last season (92 starts), though Winker and Ervin also have plenty of experience at the position.

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“I just need to prepare myself,” Akiyama said. “I know that Senzel is coming back, and it’s going to be a competitive position. I’m just willing to play whatever position David (Bell) tells me to do. During the season, I just need to keep competing.”

Bell said Akiyama’s experience makes it easier for the Reds to move him to different spots in the outfield, while Senzel is relatively new to the outfield. That doesn’t mean Akiyama won’t play center field at all, Bell said, because he will, but he could also play left and right.

Any of the outfielders could also see time at designated hitter. The majority of the designated hitter at-bats, Bell said, will go to outfielders.

“The depth in our outfield is strong,” Bell said. “The designated hitter allows us to take advantage of that.”