Fukudome Powers Team to 8th Straight Home Win (6/27/2015)
“Mr. Autumn” hopes for his first title in five tries (10/23/2014)
Kosuke Fukudome is a native of Kagoshima (south Japan), but attended the prestigious (and now defunct) PL Gakuen High School. Instead of turning pro straight out of high school (he really wanted to play only for Chunichi or Yomiuri, but the Kintetsu Buffaloes chose him in 1997), he played industrial league ball for a season before being named top pick in the 1998 draft by the Chunichi Dragons.
A shortstop early in his career, he was shifted to the outfield and found much success – both in the field and at the plate. By 2002, he was regularly hitting over .300 and even twice surpassed the 30-home run plateau – in spite of playing in an extreme pitchers’ park. He was part of the 2006 and 2009 World Baseball Classic teams that won it all, as well. He was Central League MVP in 2006, too.
His time with the Cubs in 2008 started off with a splash – a double on the first pitch he saw, and a home run in the ninth inning to tie the game. However, his performance dropped with every successive month, and after a few more rough years, he was sent off to the Cleveland Indians in 2011. One season there was enough for them to know he was not part of their future, and upon his release, Fukudome signed on for the 2012 season with the Chicago White Sox. Less than half a season into the stint, he was released (late June) and then picked up by the New York Yankees (in July) on a minor league deal. He was granted his unconditional release at the end of the season.
Feeling it was time to make a comeback in Japan, Fukudome announced his intention to sign with the Hanshin Tigers on December 25, 2012. The announcement was made official on January 5, 2013. He led the team in RBIs during spring training, and had a huge game on April 19th, hitting two home runs (his first two of the season), including a walk off bases loaded home run in the bottom of the 12th inning. Unfortunately, injury slowed him down soon afterwards, as he injured his knee on May 3rd and was put on the disabled list on the 8th. After surgery later that month, he needed several months to get back into the lineup. When at last he did return on August 13, he was only active for two weeks when he injured his left calf on the August 28th. Once again he was placed on the disabled list on September 1st. While his stint away from the active roster lasted just 10 days this time, he reinjured it during the second game of the playoffs (in which Hiroshima eliminated Hanshin).
Injury became a big story again at the start of the 2014 season, when he and second baseman Tsuyoshi Nishioka collided while chasing a shallow fly ball at Tokyo Dome on March 30 (the third game of the season). Fortunately for Fukudome, the accident did not cost him any playing time (he stayed in the game but was replaced later in the game), although it all but ruined Nishioka’s season. Whether or not the minor injury he suffered was the cause of his poor hitting, he went a whole month without hitting an extra base hit (from April 30 until he was deactivated on June 10). For the first time in his NPB career, he found himself losing playing time to his teammates for reasons other than injury. Upon his return from the farm on June 26, he began to show signs of his old (young) self. On July 10, he established an NPB record for most career 12th inning walk-off home runs (3), as he took Scott Mathieson (Giants) to deep right, off the foul pole. He hit singled to earn the team a walk-off victory on the 90th anniversary of Koshien Stadium’s opening, too. Then in the first round of the playoffs, he scored the only run (in two games!) by taking a Kenta Maeda (Hiroshima) offering deep to center. While still not up to the fans’ expectations, his second half of 2014 indicated that better times were ahead.
At long last, the Kosuke Fukudome that Hanshin was hoping for showed up in 2015. Home runs were more frequent, and on May 27 & 28, he had back-to-back walk-off RBIs (11th inning home run and 11th inning bases loaded walk, respectively), the latter of which gave the Hanshin organization its 5000th regular season victory. He continued his hot play in June, reaching double digits in home runs before the all-star break. On September 25, he reached 20 home runs, and led the team in round trippers and RBIs (76) on the season. He also won a Golden Glove in right field (committing no errors) and was named to the All-Central League team at season’s end. His solo home run in Game 3 of the Climax Series was unfortunately not enough to help Hanshin stave off elimination against the Giants.
With expectations high in 2016, Fukudome reached many milestones while leading the team in hitting most of the way. On June 20, he became the 121st player in NPB history to reach 1500 career hits, and 5 days later (in Hiroshima), got his 2000th career hit (including 498 in MLB). Then on July 30th (vs. Chunichi @ Koshien), he became the oldest player (39 years, 3 months) in NPB history to hit for the cycle. He became just the 4th player in NPB history (including Tigers legend Fumio Fujimura) to accomplish the feat twice. He would finish the season with the fifth best average in the Central League (.311) and was named team captain in the offseason, taking over for the slumping Takashi Toritani.