In his first year in Japan, pitcher Bobby Keppel has been serving as a messiah for the ailing Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters.
A humble attitude and flexible mind-set have played major roles in his success so far.
After a win over the Orix Buffaloes on Sunday, Keppel is 9-1 and tied for the Pacific League lead in wins.
In beating the Buffaloes, Keppel posted his eighth consecutive victory, setting a new franchise record by surpassing Carlos Mirabal and Ryan Glynn for the longest winning streak by a foreign pitcher.
On March 22, Keppel was forced to leave the mound after the first inning of his very first appearance for the Fighters due to muscle pain. But he has been phenomenal since then, and is now one of the team’s most reliable starters along with ace Yu Darvish (6-4).
“Oh, wow,” Keppel said last week, a couple of days after he equaled the previous record of seven straight wins with his first shutout in Japan against the Chunichi Dragons at Sapporo Dome. “That’s neat. I didn’t know.”
The 196-cm right-hander only fanned three, but was able to fool the Dragons by utilizing his signature two-seam fastballs. Nineteen batters hit groundouts in Keppel’s in-control outing.
“When things are going well, I usually get ground balls. That’s not unusual for me,” the 28-year-old Keppel said. “I consider a double play better than a strikeout. My mind-set is more ground balls, ground balls. Strikeouts come every once in a while. I’m not going to strike out, that’s not my pitch.”
But, Keppel emphasized, he wouldn’t have been able to accomplish what he has so far without a total team effort, and pitching is just one part of the equation.
“I think a lot of things have to go right,” said Keppel, a former Minnesota Twin. “Your team has to hit, has to have defense. So the games I win, that’s great. My name’s attached to the wins. But it’s definitely team victories.
“I can put zeros up but if we don’t put a run up, I don’t get a W. It’s completely true. To get seven wins, that shows the team’s really performed well every time I’ve taken the mound.”
The humble St. Louis native even gave some of the credit to Darvish, who pitched on the previous day against Chunichi.
“Darvish pitched great the day before.” Keppel said. “That helped cool their bats down because they’re a good hitting team. Darvish went seven shutout innings. So that helped me the next day.”
Another key for Keppel’s success was his ability to adapt to a new environment. He said he made a big adjustment on the side of the pitching rubber he works from — toeing the rubber closer to third base as opposed the side nearest first — before his start against the Hanshin Tigers in May. Afterwards, he said he could put more of an angle on his pitches.
Interestingly, one of the pitchers who inspired Keppel to make the change was Darvish, who often alters his pitching style in search of his best stuff.
“I watched Darvish. Darvish is able to pitch in the middle of a game switching sides (of the rubber). He can do it, I can do it,” Keppel said with a smile.
Keppel arrived in Japan without much of an idea about the game here. But his trust in his new team eventually deepened and that is another pivotal factor in his success. His belief in catcher Shinya Tsuruoka is particularly strong.
“I really trust Tsuru behind the plate,” Keppel said. “He’s done a great job calling the games. Without him behind the plate, I probably make some pitches that aren’t the best pitches. But he knows the hitters well and I trust him. So he should be given the most credit.”