10/8/2013 11:28 A.M. ET
Fujikawa progressing during rehab in Arizona
Right-hander plays catch with baseball for first time since Tommy John surgery
By Carrie Muskat / MLB.com
MESA, Ariz. -- When Kyuji Fujikawa signed with the Cubs last December, he talked about how Wrigley Field made him feel comfortable because Koshien Stadium, which was his home ballpark in Japan, had the same ambience, all the way down to the ivy on the walls.
But Fujikawa didn't see much of Wrigley Field this season, his first year in the Major Leagues.
The right-hander, who signed a two-year, $9.5 million contract with the Cubs, appeared in only 12 games and totaled 12 innings. After two stints on the disabled list because of a strained right forearm, Fujikawa eventually underwent Tommy John surgery on his elbow in early June.
Instead of spending the summer in Chicago, Fujikawa relocated to Mesa to rehab three-to-four hours a day. On Monday, he took another step in the process, playing catch for about five minutes with a baseball. That may not sound like much, but it was the first time he was allowed to throw a baseball; he'd been limited to just a tennis ball before Monday.
"Right now, I have no worries about my elbow," Fujikawa said Monday. "Just looking at today, it didn't even feel like I had surgery."
Then, he shrugged.
"On the other hand, it's a grind every day," he said.
Five members of the Japanese media were on hand Monday to document the throwing session and ask him details about his rehab, including what music he likes to listen to. This wasn't what the pitcher expected when he decided to leave Japan after 12 seasons with the Hanshin Tigers. Was Fujikawa disappointed?
"First of all, I feel I let my team down," Fujikawa said through interpreter Ryo Shinkawa. "This injury and surgery wasn't avoidable, and I felt I was a little frustrated at the timing of the surgery. The day after the surgery, I tried to focus on when I return. When I do return on the mound, I will try to produce and do what I wasn't able to do in the past year."
Fujikawa, 33, totaled 219 saves and a 1.77 ERA in 562 games with Hanshin. He did not begin this season as the Cubs' closer but took over after the first week of games for Carlos Marmol. Fujikawa picked up a save in his first opportunity on Opening Day against the Pirates to preserve a 3-1 win. He would have only two more save opportunities.
Fujikawa was placed on the disabled list April 13, recalled May 10 and was back on the DL 17 days later. He had the Tommy John surgery June 11.
Most pitchers need two years to fully recover from the procedure. Fujikawa is optimistic it will not take him as long.
"You always have to be careful not to re-injure [the arm], so you have to take it step by step," he said. "Nobody knows what percent you can get back to, but I always have the split to work with as well."
So, he'll be back next year?
"Definitely," Fujikawa said.
When Fujikawa struggled early this year, the Cubs signed Kevin Gregg, who was released by the Dodgers after Spring Training. Gregg finished with 33 saves, but the free agent-to-be may not be back next season, and Marmol was traded to the Dodgers in July. The Cubs have some young pitchers, like Pedro Strop, who could step in as the closer. Fujikawa expects to be competing for the job as well.
After his rehab sessions in Arizona, Fujikawa usually returns to his hotel. He won't say he's bored or complain about his situation.
"I can't say that, especially when the team was struggling and I was probably one of the reasons that happened," Fujikawa said. "I can't say [it's been boring]. I need to give my best right now, right here."
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.