CHICAGO – Japanese reliever Kyuji Fujikawa visited Wrigley Field on an autumn day in November, soaking in the ballpark he wished one day would be his home.
Fujikawa hoped, though didn’t expect, an opportunity to close would present itself at some point during his Cubs career. But when he signed a two-year, $9.5 million during the offseason, he never envisioned that happening in his Cubs debut at Wrigley.
“No, no,” Fujikawa said with a smile.
On Tuesday, in front of 30,065 fans, Fujikawa pitched a scoreless ninth inning in his home debut to pick up his second save of the season in the Cubs’ 6-3 win against Milwaukee.
“It was a couple times better than the time I came here, especially with the fans and the enthusiasm and the crowd, it was much better than the time I came here when it was empty,” Fujikawa said through a translator.
Fujikawa was determined to avoid a repeat of Saturday’s debacle in Atlanta. The Braves scored three runs off Fujikawa during the eighth, which set up Marmol’s ninth-inning implosion and subsequent demotion.
“There were times that I was [throwing] too many balls and I was thinking about the last time I got hit,” Fujikawa said. “I was trying to throw strikes and get ahead in the count.”
It was only fitting Fujikawa relieved the man he replaced for his first save chance as the Cubs’ closer. Marmol, who picked up the win, threw a scoreless eighth, his only blemish coming on Jean Segura’s two-out triple.
While his solid outing gave Marmol much needed confidence, he isn’t worrying about when, or if, he will again be the Cubs’ go-to man in the ninth.
“[Fujikawa] threw the ball very well today, and I’m glad he threw well,” Marmol said. “Whatever the manager says I’ll do it, no matter if it’s in the first inning or last.”
By the time Fujikawa took the mound, the temperature dropped to 42 degrees with a wind chill of 35 degrees, and though the right hander had pitched in frigid weather before, he was forced to abandon his off-speed pitches. Of the 22 pitches he threw, only two were not four-seam fastballs. Those two pitches, both change ups, were balls.
“I had pitched in cold weather like this and I think it was good that I was able to get the results today,” Fujikawa said. “But I just have to focus on tomorrow.”
Fujikawa struck out two in the inning and even mistake pitches baffled the Brewers. Despite catcher Welington Castillo calling for a fastball high out of the strike zone, he delivered a 92 mph fastball down the middle of the plate that froze Brewers pinch hitter Logan Schafer for strike three looking.
That set the tone for the rest of the inning, landing 13 pitches for strikes. Even an error by third baseman Luis Valbuena didn’t rattle him. He struck out the next batter, Rickie Weeks, and after a Ryan Braun single he got Jonathan Lucroy to pop out to end the game.
Fujikawa proved he’s capable of getting the job done in spite of high expectations, from fans and himself, the weather and the situation. While the opportunities may be few and far between given the Cubs’ offensive futility, manager Dale Sveum finally has a reliable closer.
“He threw strikes when he had to,” Sveum said. “Obviously, today he threw a lot more four seamers and really didn’t throw a whole lot of off-speed pitches or cutters at all. He came right at him with four seamers most of the time.”
• Meghan Montemurro covers the White Sox and Cubs for Shaw Media. Write to her at email@example.com. Read the Payoff Pitch blog at NWHerald.com and on Twitter@Sox_Insider and @InsideTheCubs.