By Tom Schad
The Washington Nationals acquired catcher Kurt Suzuki from the Oakland Athletics one month ago today because they needed a catcher. They needed a veteran to work their pitching staff, a defensive stopper to block wild pitches and squash potential steals. And Suzuki knows that.
“My job is to get our pitchers through the game and give us a chance to win,” he said. “Whatever I do offensively, I’m happy with.”
Suzuki drew a second-inning walk, homered to left and recorded an RBI single in the Nationals’ 4-3 win over the St. Louis Cardinals Sunday afternoon. The career .254 hitter is batting 7-for-17 (.411) in his last five games with two home runs and five RBI, and his average has ballooned by 66 points since August 24.
“What we’ve really been doing is taking the effort out of the swing and just being nice and easy, free and easy,” Suzuki said. “The less tension you have, it’s definitely going to be a lot quicker. So that’s kind of the route we’re going right now.”
Manager Davey Johnson first worked with Suzuki as manager of the United States’ 2008 Olympic qualifying squad and praised the young catcher for his short, quick swing. But when Suzuki arrived in Washington, something was different.
“I thought when he first got here he’s actually had a little bigger swing. He was actually swinging up on the ball, a little longer swing,” Johnson explained.
Nationals’ hitting coach Rick Eckstein has since worked with Suzuki to shorten his swing and improve his bat speed. It showed Sunday, when the catcher crushed his second pitch in the third inning and deposited it in the first row of the left field seats.
The swing changes also have made Suzuki more confident at the plate. In his first at-bat, a pitch from Cardinals starter Jake Westrbook skipped between Suzuki’s legs and brushed the inside of his pants. Instead of arguing that he had been hit, Suzuki stepped back into the batter’s box. He wanted another opportunity.
“He’s been swinging the bat better. Today he was outstanding,” Johnson said. “The ball hit him in both legs and he didn’t argue. He wanted to stay up there and hit.”
With all the hullabaloo surrounding Stephen Strasburg’s announced shutdown date – it’s September 12, by the way – one of Suzuki’s best games in a Nationals uniform was lost in the fray. But if he can keep his swing short and his confidence level high, Suzuki can’t be overlooked much longer.