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Fighters’ Sakakibara tries to maintain composure before pro debut

by Kaz Nagatsuka

About to make his first start as a pro, Ryo Sakakibara said before Tuesday’s game at Tokyo Dome that he certainly has some jitters, doing so with a meaningful smile.

Indeed, the Hokkaido Nippon Ham rookie right-hander didn’t look too uneasy and walked around the field as if he’s a five-year veteran.

“I have some nerves,” said Sakakibara.

And rightfully so. He will start for the Fighters on Wednesday against the Chiba Lotte Marines.

Sakakibara, who was drafted as the second-round pick by the Fighters out of Kansai University of International Studies last fall, is not highly regarded, but skipper Masataka Nashida and the team decided to add him to their starting rotation after witnessing his stellar performance in the preseason.

The 23-year-old, who pitched seven innings of scoreless ball and gave up just four while striking out 10 on April 1 in an Eastern League game against the Saitama Seibu Lions, was the only rookie hurler in Nippon Professional Baseball to make one of the 12 clubs’ starting rotations based on Opening Day rosters.

The Fighters opened the season with a three-game losing skid last week, so now there is even more pressure placed on the first-year pro’s shoulders.

But Sakakibara, who has a 150-kph fastball and a biting slider in his pitching arsenal, knows how to deal with pressure already, because he realizes nervousness will only disturb a player’s performance.

He referred to playing days at Chukyo High School of Mizunami, Gifu Prefecture, when he went to Koshien Stadium twice (the 2002 National Championships and ’03 Invitational Tournament), saying, “I got more nervous, like when I pitched even in a final of a qualifier.”

The 175-cm Sakakibara with a slim body coolly revealed the simple reason.

“Because in a game like that, you lose, you’re out,” said the native of Takahama, Aichi Prefecture, who racked up 32 wins in the Hanshin Collegiate League. “But here (in the pros) you lose and you’re not over yet. So it doesn’t help you if you get nervous.”

The Fighters (0-3 before Tuesday’s game) allowed first-inning runs in all three of their previous games. But looking ahead to the game he’ll pitch, Sakakibara didn’t look all that psyched up, but simply stated he’s going to do what he’s supposed to do.

“Well, it would be nice if I could go for about seven innings,” he said. “At least I want to avoid giving up runs in the first inning and hopefully get on a roll.”

In recent years, Yu Darvish (’05), Tomoya Yagi (’06) and Kazuhito Tadano (’08) succeeded in winning their pro debut starts for the Fighters.