What’s different about the Rays’ Yoshi Tsutsugo post-break

The slugging outfielder/third baseman came back from Japan for Spring 2.0 more comfortable and more focused.
Yoshi Tsutsugo looks on while on deck before stepping to the plate to take swings against live pitching during a workout at Tropicana Field on Tuesday.
Yoshi Tsutsugo looks on while on deck before stepping to the plate to take swings against live pitching during a workout at Tropicana Field on Tuesday. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published July 7, 2020

ST. PETERSBURG — Yoshi Tsutsugo put on an impressive display Sunday during a batting practice session at Tropicana Field, including a blast off one of the advertising signs on the rightfield wall.

But it was what he did afterward that might be more telling. And most encouraging to the Rays that his transition from Japan to the major leagues may actually go more smoothly. He has shown an increased level of comfort in all aspects following the 3 ½-month interruption to the season due to the pandemic.

We’ll let manager Kevin Cash explain:

“Yoshi comes over with the work ethic (that) is off the charts. Reps (are) a big thing from what I understand in Japan — whether it’s ground balls or hitting off a tee or flips. Whatever it is, it’s a lot. I think he’s adapted — we probably would prefer quality over just rep after rep after rep.

“We’ve noticed that. (Sunday) he took a really good round of BP. We asked him, ‘Do you want to go back in the cage?' He said, ‘No, I’m good. I feel really good.’ I don’t know if he would have done that in his first few weeks in Port Charlotte.”

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Tsutsugo, 28, had done well during the initial spring training handling myriad aspects of the move — dealing with a new country, culture and language on the broader level as well as adapting to new teammates and bosses, a different way of doing things and a higher level of competition.

He was lauded for his efforts to assimilate, mixing in some Spanish slang with teammates and occasional jokes in Japanese and even some English, and wowed with a hot start at the plate though his performance dropped off a bit.

As unfortunate as the coronavirus-caused break was, Tsutsugo went back to Japan and — limited by a stay-at-home order to spending time with his wife and baby and working out heavily (with only three days off) — did some deep self-analysis.

“I had time to reset and adjust and think about what I could do to be better when I got back,” Tsutsugo said with athletic trainer Tsutomu Kamiya interpreting. “Now everything is a lot smoother and everything is going better than back in February and March.”

Over the first few days of Spring 2.0, that added level of comfort has shown up in several ways.

“He knows us now,” infielder Brandon Lowe said. “And I think he’s a little bit more comfortable with everything and I think that’s really going to help him settle in and not be tight or anything when he’s playing.”

One example is Tsutsugo’s playfulness.

Joking that he can’t keep up with sluggers Yandy Diaz and Hunter Renfroe turning batting practice into home run derby. Or taking teasing from Cash on Tuesday while watching a live ground ball workout he’ll do Wednesday at third base, where he has shown well enough to get some time along with leftfield and designated hitter.

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“I kidded around with him saying … ‘I know you were scared today — tomorrow is your turn,’ and he kind of laughed,” Cash said.

“He smiles and laughs a lot. I think his teammates have done a good job with him and he’s certainly done a good job of being a good teammate.”

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Another example is how Tsutsugo is now working, and working with hitting coaches Chad Mottola and Ozzie Timmons.

“His swing is what it is, and it’s a really good one. He’s got a chance to beat you to all fields He’s got special power. He’s got special line-drive ability,” Cash said. “I think right now he’s finding his comfort zone with what he likes to do, and we are, for the most part, just staying out of the way. He wants to go work in the cage, we’ll be there for him. He wants to just take BP, that’s fine, too. We’re trying to create an environment where he drives what he needs and just to be there for him whenever he asks for our help.”

And the way Tsutsugo has been able to focus on doing so has been notable.

“Physically, it just looks like the intent there is to really let it go when he is swinging,” Cash said. “Certainly, we expected that he was going to come in and feel his way out a little bit when he first came over from Japan to Port Charlotte, and he did. But as the spring unfolded we started to see that comfort, (then) everything goes to a halt and you wondered how he was going to come back.

“He’s coming back very motivated. Very driven. Kind of a man on a mission, to make sure that he feels right here in the three weeks.”

Tsutsugo, who signed a two-year deal originally worth $12 million, said he is determined to make the best of his most unusual debut season in the majors.

“Obviously the coronavirus pandemic was unpredictable and I didn’t expect it to go this way,” he said. “It is what it is. I want to be able to represent myself well on the field, perform well and be able to motivate the other people that are suffering through the virus.”