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Takeda brings commanding presence to Hammies’ rotation

by Kaz Nagatsuka

In a rare show of emotion, with runners on first and third in the first inning, Hokkaido Nippon Ham pitcher Masaru Takeda pumped his left fist after striking out Tohoku Rakuten’s Jose Fernandez by throwing a fastball on the inside of the plate.

News photoMasaru Takeda fires a pitch for the Fighters during Tuesday’s victory over the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles.
KYODO PHOTO

The Fighters’ left-handed pitcher is usually exceptionally silent and even solemn on the hill, always wearing a poker face.

Then he comes at batters with a variety of breaking balls — sinker, slider and his signature shooto balls (biting screw balls) — with great command and control, giving opposing players no clues what kind of pitch will be thrown next.

Takeda, however, showed some emotion in that moment against Fernandez.

“I was able to make it right where I wanted to,” Takeda said after a 2-0 win over the Eagles at Tokyo Dome on Tuesday. “That was something I hadn’t done for a while.”

Takeda, a second-year hurler, had struggled before that game and was trying to work his way back into his best form. He gave up six runs on Aug. 27 against Rakuten and five against the Orix Buffaloes on Sept. 4, taking losses in both outings.

Takeda explained that there were issues in both his mental approach and throwing mechanics.

“I think I had been hit when I had runners on base, (by) not really concentrating on the batters,” the 29-year-old Aichi Prefecture native said. “So I tried not to do it, trying to throw at my leisure.

“Also, mechanics-wise, I was putting my weight a bit too much on my heels when I pitch. That means I was lacking the mindset to go against the batters. Then, I tried not to throw relying only on my arm but throw using my whole body as well.”

On Tuesday, although he kept his signature look for most of the game, Takeda surely showed he has the heart to challenge batters. Before striking out Fernandez, Takeda fired a breast-gouging ball to slugger Takeshi Yamasaki and it resulted in a hit-by-pitch to allow him to advance to first.

When the pitch hit Yamasaki, the Rakuten slugger glared fiercely at Takeda. But Takeda wouldn’t flinch and said afterward that there is no way he doesn’t pitch the ball inside and survive in this league.

“I can’t hold opponents without it,” said Takeda, who stands only 174 cm, weighs 72 kg and whose fastballs rarely clock 140 kph.

His manager, Trey Hillman, gave credit to Takeda for courageously tossing the inside pitch, because he knew that because Tokyo Dome is such a hitter-friendly ballpark, pitchers can’t win there if they keep throwing off the plate.

“He’s (Takeda) a command, control guy. He commanded the ball very well and he wasn’t afraid to pitch inside. That’s what you have to do at this Tokyo Dome, you’ve got to pitch inside.”

Takeda’s presence is such a big element for Hillman and the Fighters that they clinched a Climax Series berth with a 6-0 win on Wednesday and are in the hunt for the second straight championships in the postseason come October, because he can chip in both as a starter and middle reliever.

Through Wednesday, Takeda has pitched in 33 games and 18 of them were as a middle-reliever. He has gone 9-4 with the league’s fifth-best 2.50 ERA in 15 starts.

Takeda would look like an average guy if he took off his uniform and walked around the street. But other teams should watch out, because you never know what kind of ball the elusive lefty with the poker face is going to toss at you.