Hours before the Chiba Lotte Marines’ game against the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters on Tuesday, pitcher Yoshihisa Naruse was the first player out of the dugout for stretching, with 18-year-old Yuki Karakawa hot on his heels.
It was a moment that may prove symbolic because Karakawa has Lotte supporters thinking he can follow Naruse, who came out of nowhere to set the Pacific League on fire with a 16-1 regular season in 2007, in more ways than one.
Early this season it’s Karakawa who has left PL batters scratching their heads, and he didn’t disappoint on Tuesday with an eight-inning, nine strikeout performance in the Marines’ 8-2 victory over Hokkaido Nippon Ham.
In three starts, Karakawa (3-0) has 24 strikeouts and a 1.13 ERA in 24 innings.
“I wasn’t particularly aware of it,” Karakawa said of his record,”though, I’m glad I was able to pick up the win after all. I wasn’t as good as in the previous two starts. But I could gradually adjust as the game wore on. I’m not the type of guy that thinks about that kind of thing too much. Just one game at a time.”
The 18-year-old struck out five over seven innings in an impressive debut on April 26 against the Softbank Hawks.
He dominated the Seibu Lions in his next start, a 10-strikeout, complete-game drubbing of the PL leaders on May 3.
“I couldn’t expect him to be this good this soon, only because no one is,” Lotte manager Bobby Valentine said. “His mechanics are flawless and when you can throw that many pitches, anytime in the count, at different speeds, that he can throw for strikes, it usually spells success.”
Valentine has spoken highly of Karakawa’s technique, but the pitcher’s mind-set is what has stood out so far.
“I was impressed after (Fighters outfielder Atsunori) Inaba hit the home run off him,” Valentine said. “He (Inaba) hit the home run on a changeup, and the first pitch next time at the plate he (Karakawa) shook off the catcher because he wanted to throw another changeup.
“That showed me extreme confidence in his pitches.”
Marines catcher Takeshi Kanazawa had asked for a fastball during the at-bat in question, but Karakawa had his own ideas,
“I shook my head and pitched it (a changeup),” Karakawa said. “I wanted to throw it lower, though. I kind of read his (Inaba’s) mind. That he wouldn’t imagine I would pitch the same ball that he’d hit previously.”
Karakawa was a part of a heralded trio of high schoolers in this year’s amateur draft that also included Nippon Ham’s Sho Nakata and Tokyo Yakult’s Yoshinori Sato, dubbed the “High School Big 3.”
The Marines targeted the former Narita High star and Valentine was all smiles when Lotte won the lottery for the right to negotiate with the 181-cm, 76-kg native of Chiba Prefecture.
“It’s a credit to his high school and his coaching that he’s such a fine pitcher at this age, with great mechanics, great poise and great pitches,” Valentine said.
While it’s too early to predict if Karakawa will be as successful as Naruse was last season, the young star has turned heads nonetheless.
“Karakawa not only has good control of the ball but he holds it long enough before he releases it, so the ball maintains speed until the end,” Fighters official scorer Takaaki Taniyama said. “Even if it’s a 140-kph ball, the batters feel like it’s 145. So it’s very difficult for our batters to hit his pitches.”
With three consecutive solid starts the rookie will likely draw even more attention from opposing batters and coaching staffs. Valentine, however, seems to have a lot of confidence in his young hurler.
“I don’t think he’s going to be undefeated,” Valentine said. “But his stuff is not easy to hit. It doesn’t matter what kind of study they do on him.”
Karakawa was pitching against Nippon Ham at Tokyo Dome on Tuesday, but the youngster is well aware of the possibility he may face the Big Egg’s regular tenants, the Yomiuri Giants, and their powerful lineup, the next time out, when the teams begin interleague play with a two-game series in Chiba starting May 20.
“I may sound like an amateur, but I think they’ve got a great offensive lineup,” Karakawa said. “I would like to go against them not trying to put my guard down, focusing on each single pitch. I’ll just pitch my game.”
Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this story.