Japan’s win inspires Suzuki during rehab process


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MESA, Ariz. — As the pyrotechnics went off and Team Japan hoisted the World Baseball Classic trophy skyward in Miami, celebrating their triumph over Team USA on Tuesday night, one player gripped one of Seiya Suzuki‘s jerseys.

Earlier this spring, Suzuki was forced to withdraw from the tournament due to a left oblique injury, robbing him of the chance to join the run to Japan’s third Classic title. He watched from home as his teammates’ on-field party still included his name and his medal.

“Even though I wasn’t on the team,” Suzuki said via interpreter Toy Matsushita, “and I wasn’t able to do much for the team, how they did that for me, holding up my uniform — not just in that situation, but in every game they had my uniform in the dugout — it meant a lot for me.”

Back at the Cubs’ complex on Wednesday morning, Suzuki took to the agility field in a light rain and threw in a long-toss session. He was also scheduled to begin hitting against normal pitching in the batting cage, and has been cleared for light baserunning in addition to his regular running and agility work.

Opening Day is still not realistic for Suzuki, who is expected to be placed on the injured list as he continues to test and strengthen the oblique he strained in late February. Suzuki would not speculate on a timetable for return, but he did note that Team Japan’s 7-0 run through the Classic was inspiring.

“Right after the injury,” Suzuki said, “obviously it was kind of hard to grasp the reality that I wouldn’t be able to be out there with everyone. But just seeing everyone grind out there, when they played through the qualifiers and they went into the final round, as well, it kind of motivated me to get through this rehabilitation process.”

The 28-year-old Suzuki is already a highly motivated player and worker. Over the offseason, he added an estimated 20 pounds of muscle in an effort to be ready for the stamina required for a 162-game season. Even after long days at the complex or ballpark, the sound of Suzuki’s bat can often be heard in the cage.

Having his Spring Training grind to a halt has been a test of Suzuki’s patience, forcing him to stick to the rehab plan devised by the Cubs’ training and medical team. In recent days, the Chicago right fielder has been upping the intensity level in his workouts, making his case to keep moving to the next steps.

Cubs manager David Ross has emphasized that Suzuki is sticking to the schedule.

“It is a unique injury and you try to manage that as best you can,” Ross said. “He feels good. All the stuff he’s been able to ramp up — the dry swings to the tee to hitting — it all went really well [so far].”

Ross reiterated that the Cubs will “work him responsibly” as they increase the volume and intensity of Suzuki’s baseball activity. The current plan likely will keep Suzuki in Arizona after camp breaks, giving him a chance to build up more swings and, eventually, at-bats prior to moving to a Minor League rehab assignment. Ross added that getting Suzuki in a spring game before the end of camp is “not on my radar.”

During Spring Training, most hitters aim to compile around 50 at-bats. A year ago, Suzuki only had 17 at-bats in the abbreviated preseason after signing his five-year, $85 million contract with the North Siders. He then won the National League’s Rookie of the Month Award for April.

The difference a year ago, of course, was Suzuki was not working back from an injury. This time around, the hope for the Cubs is to activate the outfielder when there is a high level of confidence that Suzuki can avoid a setback with the oblique during the season.

“It’s all listen and learn and react, right?” Ross said. “We want him to get back to where he feels his timing is right, he’s healthy, he’s seeing pitches, he’s done everything. He’s swung hard, he’s swung and missed, he’s run the bases, he’s scored from second, he’s scored from first — as much stuff as we can put him through. And also know: He’s very valuable.”

Asked how many at-bats Suzuki felt he would need to be ready, the outfielder opted not to put a number on it.

“I’m not sure about that,” Suzuki said. “I’m going to do what’s best within a short amount of time to just be ready.”

He cracked a smile when asked if he was disappointed to miss playing in Chicago’s early-April weather.

“I would’ve loved to play in that cold,” Suzuki quipped.

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