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Yusuke Akitoshi’s Quest to Keep Playing Ball

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By Jason Dorow

In an age where the baseball world is enthralled by home run derbies, sabermetrics and pitch speed, there is one facet of the game becoming a lost art: fielding. Yusuke Akitoshi is a master of this lost art.

The Woodchuck shortstop vacuums up every ball hit his way, whether it’s with the leather or his bare hand, and delivers a dart to his target in one fluid motion. Akitoshi has some of the quickest hands you’ll ever see on a baseball diamond and the arm strength to throw out runners from deep in the hole. Woodchuck head coach Jordan Bischel has definitely taken notice.

“It’s funny because watching him play, it looks like there’s a little bit of flash there. But really he’s just fundamentally sound,” Bischel said. “He just makes the routine play, and he throws it to the first baseman’s chest every time. He does a great job of turning outs into outs over and over and over again.”

Akitoshi’s fundamentals developed more than 6,000 miles from Wausau in Toyonaka, Japan, a city of over 300,000 people in the southern prefecture of Osaka. Akitoshi said that there is a lot more emphasis on fundamental skill when learning to play ball in Japan, rather than the U.S.

“Here we lift more and work out a lot,” Akitoshi said. “In Japan, there’s more taking ground balls and taking swings. In BP (batting practice), we have three cages on the field, and we hit at the same time. There’s a lot more repetition for skill.”

Leaving Home

The move from Japan to the United States came sooner than expected for Akitoshi. After attending Tokohakikagawa High School, he signed on to play baseball at a Japanese university. However, the head coach at the school quit, and Akitoshi did not want to stay at the same university or sit out a year to transfer.

With the support of his parents, Akitoshi left his school in Japan after just one semester and pursued the option of playing baseball across the Pacific Ocean. It was not an easy decision for him.

“It was scary because it was a place that I had never been to before,” Akitoshi said. “It was really hard, but I quit the Japanese university. It made me more tough, but like I got to do it. I have to have success over in the United States.”

Succeeding in baseball was always the first thing on Akitoshi’s mind, but moving to America provided him with some more difficult hurdles, including learning the English language.

Akitoshi knew just a couple English words before coming to the U.S., so he took classes to learn the language upon arrival. He says talking to his teammates was just as helpful in picking up the new dialect.

“I just tried hanging out with other teammates who speak English as their first language. So I’d just listen first and once I understood what they were saying, I could speak little by little,” he said.

Akitoshi also swapped out his Japanese music for Pandora radio and watched more television to learn words and phrases. But he said the biggest thing was living with one of his teammates who helped teach him the language.

With just a mild grasp on English, one would expect that Akitoshi – who didn’t know he’d have to attend college to play baseball in the U.S. – might struggle in the classroom, and yet he excelled.

Akitoshi tried out for several different schools before landing at Skagit Valley College, from which he earned his associate’s degree with a 3.67 GPA. Skagit is a two-year community college in Mount Vernon, Washington, and Akitoshi said the learning environment really facilitated his academic success.

Almost all of Akitoshi’s classes were rather small since he was at a junior college, so the professors had more time to discuss the curriculum with students. Akitoshi said all the teachers knew him, and their willingness to communicate with him contributed to his high GPA.

Proving He Can Play

As great as Akitoshi was in school, he was just as good on the field. He started at shortstop for Skagit in both seasons, twice earned All-Northwest Athletic Conference First Team honors and won two gold gloves.

The pair of tremendous seasons with the Cardinals elicited a swarm of offers from Division I programs. Akitoshi elected to continue his collegiate career at Cal State Northridge, where he quickly became a star.

In 2015 – his first season with the Matadors – Akitoshi started all 57 games at shortstop and led the team in at bats, hits, doubles, stolen bases, RBI and on-base percentage. He showed off his power too with three triples and three home runs, and Jordan Bischel says that strength makes Akitoshi a very complete player.

“What’s nice with Yusuke is he is going to get base hits, but he’s also going to have a great approach. He’s going to get on base and draw walks. And he does have some power. If he squares up a ball, and I think that surprises people, he can drive the ball in the gaps or occasionally drive it out of the park,” Bischel said. “When you can diversify your portfolio there, you’re going to help the team in some way every night.”

That’s exactly what Akitoshi has done since joining the Chucks in mid-June. He’s appeared in every game except two, due to a lower leg injury, and he’s hitting .219 with three doubles, one home run and 11 walks.

The addition of Akitoshi was likely more valuable in the field for the Woodchucks. Ryan Howard departed June 10th to play for USA Baseball, leaving the shortstop position up for grabs. Akitoshi latched on to the starting role and has only committed one error in 20 contests while aiding in numerous double plays.

Pursuing The Next Level

Akitoshi has made the transition on and off the field from Japan to the U.S. look seamless, yet there are still things he misses about home, particularly the food. He said he enjoys being able to cook for himself, while at school and here in Wausau, but it’s still nothing like his mother’s cooking.

“My mom always used to cook for me almost every single meal, or I could always go buy some Japanese food when I was in Japan,” he said. “But here, bread and some other foods, I get sick of it sometimes.”

Despite the change in diet, Akitoshi wants to stay in the United States and play baseball professionally. That’s why he is stoked to be playing in the Northwoods League, where the competition is stiff, and the everyday schedule is closest to that of the minor leagues.

Nobody embraces playing a ballgame every day more than Akitoshi. His love for the game is unparalleled, and somehow he is taking a day-by-day approach in his pursuit of the pros.

“I’m trying not to think about it. I have one more year, so I’m going to do my best and we’ll see,” Akitoshi said about trying to make the bigs. “I just want to keep playing baseball.”