TOKYO — Jabari Blash was in demand before the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles’ “home” game at Tokyo Dome on May 16.
When he came off the field after batting practice, a Rakuten staffer led him to a television crew that was waiting for him. When that was done, there was another TV crew ready for its turn.
It’s been that kind of month for Blash, who moved into the spotlight with a .304 average, eight home runs and 22 RBIs since May 1.
“Sometimes that’s how hitting goes,” Blash said. “Sometimes you’re really good as a hitter and sometimes you’re not so good. You kind of try to ride the waves and keep doing the things you’re doing well for as long as you can.
“When the whole team is hitting, which if you look at our numbers we are, it’s easy to go up there and have success.”
Blash has provided some of the spark himself.
On May 8, he hit a pair of two-run homers to help the Eagles climb out of a 7-0 hole and eventually beat the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks 8-7. On May 15, he hit a grand slam and a two-run shot to help Rakuten overturn an 8-0 deficit in a 9-8 win over the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters.
“It’s definitely rewarding,” he said. “Especially when you can build trust in your teammates. It’s great to get these wins. I can see with the standings, every team is kind of bunched up, those big games that we can run away with, those are huge.”
Blash is hitting .271 overall through Friday, and is third in Nippon Professional Baseball with 13 home runs. He’s also tied for second in the league with 36 RBIs.
He arrived in Japan this season after playing in 123 games with the San Diego Padres and Los Angeles Angels from 2016-2018. He spent the majority of his time in the U.S. in the minors, including hitting .274 with 94 homers across five seasons in Triple-A.
Blash hasn’t changed his swing much in Japan, but has worked to adjust his approach.
“Initially, the strike zone was a little bit different and that’s one of the toughest things,” he said. “So what I started to do was expand the strike zone early in the count, which kind of helped me get acclimated to what strikes were. At first, I was a little bit too selective, which was my normal zone in the States. But because it’s so different here, I had to change my approach to the pitching, and it helped.”
Those adjustments didn’t come right away.
“It took me into the season,” Blash said. “I’ve had my approach for years. To be able to just turn it off and change it in a month or two, it’s not that easy. But I did bear down to not be so selective, and early in the count, even something that is, in my mind, a little bit out of the zone, I offer at it to help open up the zone for me.”
Blash’s transition has also been aided by former teammate Shohei Ohtani. Because Blash was a backup with the Angels and Ohtani the designated hitter, on his non-pitching days, the pair spent a lot of time together in the batting cage in 2018.
Knowing there was a chance NPB was in his future, Blash sometimes asked Ohtani about the game in Japan.
“What he told me was that it’s going to take some time to adjust and that if I don’t chase the breaking ball, it would be a little bit easier for me,” Blash said. “But he said you’re going to get a lot of junk, you’re going to get a lot of breaking balls.”
Ohtani also advised Blash to be selective about which team he landed with.
“He did say it’s going to be tough to adjust, so make sure you choose a team that would give you the opportunity to get acclimated,” Blash recalled. “Because if you go over with a team that has a short leash, it’s going to be tough.
“Because after two weeks and you’re not doing well, going down to the minor leagues is not really fun and it’s going to be a harder transition. So he did say choose a team you think would give you an opportunity to get acclimated.”
Blash thinks he’s found that with the Eagles.
“Everyone’s friendly, everyone’s enjoying themselves,” he said. “Even when we’re down, everyone is cheering.
“The fans are amazing. It’s remarkable how a team can be down eight, nine runs and the home fans will be there, last inning with two outs, still cheering the team on. It’s electric, it’s been a ton of fun.”