Last season provided challenges. He played through injuries, and his batting average plummeted to barely above .200. Oakland called up Derek Norris, a former Nationals farmhand, and Suzuki’s playing time dissipated. He grinded away, and the rigors of the season chipped away at his joy for the game until early August.
The Nationals had the best record in baseball and a catcher, Jesus Flores, slumping at the plate and sulking behind it. They sent minor league catcher David Freitas to Oakland and removed Suzuki from the only organization he has ever known. The deal stunned Suzuki, but it also revitalized him. The edge came back.
“Sometimes, you lose that feeling,” Suzuki said. “I came here, and I got that feeling again. It let me step back and kind of realize the enjoyment of the game. It got me back to just having fun and enjoying everything about it.”
The first thing Suzuki told Nationals coaches was, “You don’t have to ask me I want to play or not. You know I want to play.”
‘He wants us to succeed’
Suzuki made it a priority to learn his new pitchers and dedicated himself to the task. “He’s spending time with the pitching staff, in their ear,” shortstop Ian Desmond said. “Where he could be being selfish, going in the cage.”
Each day during the season, Suzuki spends 45 minutes to an hour studying opposing lineups and how they will fit the strengths and weakness of each Nationals pitcher. He uses a computer to gauge a hitter’s tendencies, emphasizing the past 10 games. He memorizes “heat maps” — plots that show how a hitter fares against specific pitch locations. He watches video to crosscheck the numbers.
“If I catch a shutout and win the game and I got 0-for, I’m really happy,” Suzuki said. “To me, catching a shutdown is the best feeling.”
Suzuki wore neon tape on his fingernails so pitchers could see signs more easily – “nubs,” Jordan Zimmermann jokingly calls his short fingers. Before one game this spring, even though he was in the starting lineup later that day, he volunteered to catch one of Dan Haren’s bullpen sessions, wanting to learn more about his style.
“Even on a random spring training bullpen, he’s fired up, he’s excited,” reliever Drew Storen said. “He’s excited for you. It’s cool. He wants us to succeed not for his own good, but for us.”
As he became more familiar with the Nationals’ pitching staff, the hitting slump he endured in Oakland disappeared. The A’s employed three different hitting coaches during his time, and they had three different plans. In Oakland, Suzuki had focused on hitting to the opposite field, letting pitches travel deep into the zone.
Nationals hitting coach Rick Eckstein had coached him in an international tournament in 2006. He reversed Suzuki’s thinking. Eckstein told him to feel natural, to attack the ball and tap into his natural power pulling the ball.
“Once that got into my mind, I just never thought anymore,” Suzuki said. “I just went up there and looked for that pitch and hit.”
In his last final 29 games of the regular season, Suzuki batted .309 with a .362 on-base percentage and a .500 slugging percentage with five homers. At one point, he started 11 of 12 games. If he could walk, he played.
“He’s a gamer,” Desmond said. “He plays banged up. There’s nothing better than a foul ball going off his arm, and he just bounces up and says, ‘Here.’ He tells the umpire to get back behind the plate. Let’s go.”
Suzuki does not like to complain. In 2007, doctors found cancer in Warren Suzuki’s left kidney and operated to remove it. A year later, the cancer came back, and Warren underwent another surgery to remove part of his left lung.
“Knock on wood, I’m fine today,” Warren Suzuki said. “One of the things I constantly stress to Kurt is, you always have to maintain a positive attitude, because you never know what’s going to happen. I’m not sure that’s something he’s thought about. But I’ve always told him, ‘Maintain a good attitude.’ ”
The picture, then, becomes clear. Suzuki gets to the ballpark first, leaves last and keeps a smile on his face. He does small, thoughtful things that more people would remember to do if they gave themselves over to others. That is how the little catcher from Maui made it here. That is Kurt Suzuki’s edge.