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SubMarine no longer under radar

by Stephen Ellsesser

CHIBA — Shunsuke Watanabe is a rabbit’s foot, a twisting, turning good luck charm who gets it done.

Watanabe isn’t the strongest or the meanest, and he certainly isn’t the hardest throwing pitcher, but he has a way of making teams better, a subtle nastiness.

It probably has something to do with his uncanny ability to make opposing batters look foolish. Watanabe is tough, and he’s no one-pitch wonder.

“All of my pitches are out-pitches,” Watanabe said. “When you’re in trouble and a batter knows what to expect, they will hit you or just not swing.

News photo

Marines pitcher Shunsuke Watanabe would like to face the
best hitters in the world, but he said he is not ready to
leave Japan.

“What I have and what they don’t have in the big leagues are slow pitches. I capitalize on them. They are my weapons.”

Deadly weapons, at that.

Watanabe will never be the guy who burns up the radar gun, but with his control, he could find his spot on a leopard, and that’s to say nothing of his ability to change speeds.

Ranging from down in the 90s up to the 120s regularly, he can alter velocity by more than 30 kph from pitch to pitch, which keeps hitters guessing.

“All of his pitches are nasty,” said teammate Matt Franco, who was 0-for-2 against Watanabe during a World Baseball Classic exhibition game last month in Fukuoka. “His slider actually rises.

“It’s so deceptive. He doesn’t get you with speed, but he still is nasty.”

Hitters had a tough time figuring out Watanabe last season.

Going 15-4 with a 2.17 ERA and eight complete games, Watanabe was a force for the Marines as they won interleague, Pacific League, Japan Series and Asia Series championships.

Watanabe threw a complete-game shutout against the Hanshin Tigers in the Japan Series and was named most outstanding pitcher of the Series, and with Team Japan in the WBC, he had a 1.98 ERA and struck out six in 13 2/3 WBC innings.

As good as he was through the regular season, Watanabe was able to crank it up in the postseason as well as in the WBC.

He had no-decisions against Korea in his two WBC starts, but Watanabe still turned in solid outings for the world champions.

Watanabe was money for Lotte in the Pa League playoffs, the Japan Series and the Asia Series.

He was so money, so good, the Marines more than doubled his salary in the offseason.

Watanabe, a 2001 draft pick from Nippon Steel Kimitsu Works, made 61 million yen in 2005. After posting the second-best ERA in the PL last season, Watanabe’s salary rose to 140 million yen.

Life on the corporate circuit was a large influence on Watanabe’s big-game mentality.

“I had played in the corporate league, and when you lose one there, you’re out of it,” Watanabe said. “I was playing under the pressure that if we lost, our club would be disbanded because a lot of teams were disappearing.

News photoShunsuke Watanabe has gained notice for his submarine
pitching style, starring for the Chiba Lotte Marines and
for Team Japan in the World Baseball Classic.

“The pressure of playing in the postseason is very similar. The fans really get into it, and it helps me focus on the game.”

More than pleased with what he accomplished last season, Watanabe isn’t ready to take it easy.

Although the Marines were tops in almost every way possible during last year’s magical run, Watanabe said his numbers could have been just a little bit better.

Stress the word “little.”

Fukuoka Softbank Hawks pitchers Toshiya Sugiuchi (2.11) and Kazumi Saito (16-1) led the league in ERA and winning percentage, respectively, last season, something Watanabe wants to do this year. Being close is not good enough for the competitive hurler.

“As a starter, it is important to have consistent games and not to lose, if you want to win that title,” he said. “Aiming at (Saito’s) title makes me focused. That’s the one I want to win.”

Goals met does not necessarily equal challenges left behind, Watanabe said.

Even if Watanabe blasts through the regular season and win ERA and winning-percentage titles, there is enough in Japan to keep him interested.

He is not champing at the bit to get posted for the major leagues like Seibu Lions pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka or Tokyo Yakult Swallows third baseman Akinori Iwamura.

“At this moment, I am not thinking of it,” said Watanabe, who turns 30 this season. “I have anxieties with my language and lifestyle, and we’ve just had a baby. My wife and I have two kids, so considering my family, I should stay in Japan for a while.”

Under the right circumstances, however, Watanabe said it would be an intriguing opportunity for him someday.

“I’m curious about the game in the majors,” he said.

Major leaguers are pretty curious about him too.

Watanabe’s underhand submarine pitching style made him one of the most recognizable players for Team Japan in the WBC.

“He’s that guy who throws the crazy underhand, right?” New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez said.

“He would be tough to hit. He looks like he is going to drag his knuckles on the ground every time he throws the ball.”

A-Rod and Team USA faced Koji Uehara in the WBC, so Major League Baseball’s highest-paid star never got an at-bat against Watanabe.

One major-league team that did face Watanabe was the Milwaukee Brewers, who Japan played in an exhibition game between the Tokyo and Anaheim rounds of the WBC.

Brewers manager Ned Yost was impressed with Watanabe, who gave up two hits in three innings against the Brewers. Watanabe left with a 1-0 lead, but Sugiuchi blew the lead and Japan lost 5-4.

“I don’t know how he throws it like that, but sure enough, he throws strikes,” Yost said. “He changes his spots and then comes back. Just amazing stuff.”

But could Watanabe succeed in the majors?

“For sure,” Yost said. “With his command, he could make it over here.”

It would require a big change in mind-set for Watanabe to go across the Pacific and compete. Against more powerful hitters, Watanabe said, he would have to become a little trickier.

“I consider my fastballs as change-ups because I throw from the bottom and nothing goes straight,” Watanabe said. “Against the major leaguers, it is better to go with a slow pitch, so I would use curveballs and sinkers.”

Watanabe’s always been known for being a submarine pitcher.

Going back to junior high school, when he adopted the pitching style after a heart-to-heart with father and baseball fanatic Hideo Watanabe.

Shunsuke Watanabe told his father he wanted to become a big-time pitcher, and knowing his son’s physical ability, Hideo Watanabe advised become a sub.

The Marine part came later.

“I wanted to play for a school that would go to Koshien and continue at university,” Shunsuke said. “I thought it would be interesting to change to submarine because my body is so flexible.”

Watanabe played for Kokugakuen University Tochigi High School, but he first fell in love with the magic of the Koshien tournaments when Kazuhiro Kiyohara led PL Gakuen to a title.

“I went out rooting for a Tochigi Prefecture school, but since then, I’ve been a fan of Kiyohara,” Watanabe said.

Kiyohara is back in the Pacific League this season after signing with the Orix Buffaloes. Orix and the Hawks both will be in hot competition with the Marines in a top-heavy Pacific League.

He has come a long way since those days of sitting in the stands at Koshien, playing integral roles in domestic and world championships.

Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report.

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