Masataka Yoshida, “a baseball rat”, eager to meet his favorite player Bryce Harper

When longtime major league outfielder Adam Jones arrived in Japan to play for the Orix Buffaloes in 2020, he noticed a player right away — a player everyone called Harper-san, who wore number 34.

It wasn’t Bryce Harper himself, of course, but one of his biggest fans: current Red Sox outfielder Masataka Yoshida.

Yoshida not only wore 34 in Japan for Harper, but named her French bulldog Harper and uses an Instagram handle (BH_Masataka34) with Harper’s initials and number. When Nippon Professional Baseball hosted a game where players wore nicknames on the back of their jerseys, Yoshida naturally chose Harper as the nickname.

“He would emulate Harper, in a way, using the whole court and how he approaches his offensive game,” Jones said. At some point, Jones contacted Harper asking him to send a signed jersey for Yoshida and her dog as a gift to teammate Orix.

So it’s safe to say that Yoshida has had this weekend in Philadelphia on his schedule since signing with the Red Sox in December.

The fact that Harper will be on the field for the first time at home this year following an accelerated recovery from Tommy John surgery in the offseason seems even more fortuitous for the Red Sox outfielder.

“I’m really honored to play against him,” Yoshida said through interpreter Keiichiro Wakabayashi. “I also heard that the surgery usually takes a year to get back to the game, but he came back to the game much faster than usual. I suffered injuries, so I know it’s a lot of work to come back, so I really respect that part.

Yoshida is off to an impressive start to his rookie season, and his intense study of Major League Baseball while playing Nippon Professional Baseball for seven seasons no doubt helped ease his transition into American baseball.

There would always have been a learning curve, but for Yoshida, hitting his current clip is something that even impresses the Red Sox, who banked on his power and potential on base when they signed him for five. years, $90. millions of dollars. After a slow start to the season, Yoshida posted a 3-for-5 night on Thursday and extended his hitting streak to 14 games, the longest active streak in the majors. He is currently hitting .317 with a .948 OPS, six home runs and 24 RBIs in 27 games.

Yoshida is learning English and finding ways to communicate with his Red Sox teammates and coaches, but baseball conversation is the universal clubhouse language. In the few months manager Alex Cora got to know Yoshida, he appreciated Yoshida’s intense passion for the game.

“He’s a baseball rat, he is,” Cora said. “He knows the game. He knows the players. It’s good baseball conversations with him, which I love. He knows a lot. He knows the pitchers. When it comes to homework, he understands what he must do to prepare for this.

Cora was impressed that Yoshida already knew so much about so many of his Red Sox teammates, as well as others across the league, when he arrived at spring training.

“He knows the good guys and what they do,” Cora said. “For example Javy Báez, he said to me, ‘Puerto Rico, good defender, pop, circuits’. I bet he was locked in there for a while, understanding that he wanted to come here, so it It’s refreshing to talk about baseball with him.

When the Red Sox scouted Yoshida last season, they feared the Phillies would have the upper hand by signing Yoshida given his affinity for Harper. Not only did they not have Harper, but Boston’s No. 34 was off the table for obvious reasons relating to a certain Dominican slugger and Red Sox legend. But the Phillies didn’t pursue Yoshida that aggressively without needing an outfield bat. At the time, Yoshida’s signing by the Red Sox so quickly after his December release was confusing to many baseball players.

Jones, a 14-year major league veteran who played two seasons at Orix alongside Yoshida, was a source of knowledge for the Red Sox, as well as other teams looking for him. Jones’ description of Yoshida as a Japanese version of San Diego Padres outfielder Juan Soto bolstered internal Red Sox opinions of the player. The Red Sox, like every other team, couldn’t meet Yoshida until he posted, so all of their data and analysis came from outside observations and conversations with people at NBP.

“When I finally met him, his attention to detail was real,” said Red Sox vice president of scouting development and integration Gus Quattlebaum, who spent weeks in Japan watching Yoshida l ‘last year. “He asked me if the ball was snaking at Fenway in the outfield grass. Nobody ever asked me that. There was attention to detail and he made observations about other hitters who stood out. The hitters came to him, he saw the game differently.

All of this information gave the Red Sox the conviction to sign Yoshida. Still, the slow start called the deal into question. Jones watched from afar and was unconcerned. He sent a message to his former teammate.

“I know his interpreter Kei very well and I texted him to tell Yoshida ‘you don’t need to hit that hard, they’re throwing hard here, the ball will fly’,” Jones said. “You just have to stick to the ball, be quick enough and use the whole pitch. That’s what Juan Soto does. Juan Soto is not a power hitter, he uses the whole court, but hits the ball hard on the line and walks around. Yoshida will take his walks.

Yoshida put himself on the radar of American fans in the spring with a telling performance at the World Baseball Classic for Japan, hitting .409 with two homers and a tournament-best 13 RBIs.

Midway through the successful tournament, he received a video message of encouragement from Harper. Yoshida and Harper have Scott Boras as their agent and Boras asked Harper to send Yoshida a message congratulating him on his impressive streak.

“I would like to thank him for this message,” Yoshida said of what he might say to Harper when they meet this weekend.

“He’s a really good hitter, he hits aggressively and he’s powerful,” Yoshida said. “I watched him since he was with the Nationals as a rookie, I really respected the way he played.”

There is only one month left in Yoshida’s major league career, with many milestones likely to occur. But meeting Harper, the player who spurred his desire to play in America, will likely be one of his greatest honours.

“Yoshida was longing to go to America the day I met him and asked about pitchers and ballparks,” Jones recalled. “For some reason I said Fenway would be the best place for him and he’s had a pretty solid run so far.”

(Photo: Brian Fluharty/Getty Images)

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