The summer of 2003 was a magical ride for pitchers Kazumi Saito and Kei Igawa. The summers since then? Not so much.
Saito was 20-3 with a 2.83 ERA and 160 strikeouts for the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks that year, while Igawa was 20-5, had a 2.80 ERA and struck out 179 for the Hanshin Tigers.
They shared the Sawamura Award then met in the Japan Series, which Saito’s Hawks won in seven games.
But those days are long gone. Replaced by the ongoing saga of two careers taking all the wrong turns and hitting every pothole along the way.
Injuries have been Saito’s downfall as chronic shoulder problems have kept him off the field.
He missed a big portion of the 2007 season then sat out the next two years after having rotator cuff surgery in 2008.
The news Saito will go under the knife again on Feb. 2 will only fuel the speculation that the hurler’s once-great career may be lost.
When healthy, Saito is deserving of a spot among Japan’s elite pitchers. He’s a two-time Sawamura Award winner (also winning in 2006) and had big years in 2005 (16-1, 2.92 ERA) and 2006 (18-5, 1.75).
Poor mechanics have been pinpointed as the reason for Igawa’s woes since joining New York Yankees in 2006. Seen as the Yankees’ answer to the Boston Red Sox’s acquisition of Daisuke Matsuzaka, Igawa was in the minors a month after his major league debut on April 7, 2007.
Since then he’s bounced back-and-forth between the majors and minors, so far unable to make much of a name for himself.
Igawa has been very successful with the Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees, setting the franchise record for most career wins in 2009.
Though staying in the minors long enough to set that type of record serves as a reminder of his inability to remain in the majors for long stretches of time.
With their careers in a free-fall, Saito and Igawa will be out to prove the doubters wrong this year.
That may prove hard for Saito, whose status will be in question after the latest procedure on his injured shoulder. Saito’s situation deals another blow to the Hawks, who are in need of a reliable arm to settle the rotation behind Toshiya Sugiuchi, D.J. Houlton and Tsuyoshi Wada.
For Igawa, who received an invite to spring training, the time is now to show the Yankees what he can do.
He’s been great in Triple-A , but that was hardly the expectation when the franchise dished out a small fortune for his services.
The former Hanshin Tiger needs to have a productive year if only to win himself a change of scenery. There are many examples of players who succeeded elsewhere after being ill-suited to handle the pressures that come with playing in New York.
That may prove to be the case with Igawa, but first he’ll have to show other clubs he’s worth taking a risk on.
Since embarking on dual 20-win seasons in 2003, Saito and Igawa have both gone horribly awry.
Now the fallen aces have to make the most of the chances they have left and recapture the feelings of that season so many summers ago.
Otherwise they’ll reach the winter of their baseball careers far sooner than anyone would’ve expected just a few years ago.