CHIBA – Given the circumstances, the majority of baseball fans — the notable exception being Chiba Lotte Marines supporters — around the nation were probably rooting for the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles to win their first game of the season on Tuesday so as to instill some sense of joy in the disaster-hit Tohoku region.
In the ninth inning of the opener, all that was needed was for Ryan Speier, making his NPB debut, to get a pair of outs against the Marines for the Eagles to have their story-book ending.
Talk about pressure.
In the end, Speier came through, the Eagles picked up a 6-4 win and manager Senichi Hoshino saw the beginning of what he hopes is the revival of a bullpen that’s been disastrous in recent years.
“It feels good to be contributing,” Speier said Thursday, before the final game of Rakuten’s season-opening road series against the Marines. “It felt like there was a lot more at stake than just the win or the loss on our schedule. First off, it was a longer spring training than usual, so the anticipation for Opening Day was much greater.”
The Eagles signed the 201-cm right-hander over the winter to help shore up a bullpen that has had trouble preserving leads and closing out games.
Speier relies mainly on a deceptive fastball and uses a slider as his out-pitch. He doesn’t have an overpowering arsenal, so his effectiveness sometimes is dependent on how much movement he’s getting on his fastball and other pitches.
With the season under way after the delay caused by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, Speier, who has one save so far, hopes to hit the ground running and is learning as his goes in his first year in Japan.
“It’s the same game,” Speier said of the difference between NPB and the major leagues. “It’s the same talent level really, just in different forms. At home (in the U.S.) teams will sit back and wait for the three-run home run. Here, guys will foul off pitch after pitch until they get something good to hit, they’re going to make a lot more contact and aren’t going to strike out as much.
“The approach is the same, I’m just trying to miss the fat part of the bat.”
Speier comes to Japan after two separate stints in the majors with the Colorado Rockies (2005 and 2007-2008). He hooked on with the Washington Nationals during the spring of 2010, but was among the first group of cuts the team made during spring training.
The latter setback left Speier fed up with the business side of baseball. Somewhat disillusioned with the game, he landed with the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs of the independent Atlantic League later that year.
Playing at Regency Furniture Stadium, a small, 6,000-seat venue in Waldorf, Md., gave him an outlet to use to refocus himself and the time away from the upper levels of the game ended up having a positive effect.
“It was the purest form of baseball I played probably since I was in little league,” Speier said. “It was just what I needed. I didn’t make any money, but it wasn’t about that. It was about doing what we love to do.
“You were going out and you were trying to win every day. You weren’t worried about any kind of politics, you weren’t worried about some first-round pick maybe getting more playing time than you because the team’s got more money invested in him. It was just, ‘We’re going to go out and do what we can to win that day.’ It was that type of feeling every single day.”
That experience has led Speier back to a top professional league, where he’ll be expect to help get the Eagles’ bullpen situation turned around.
“I had a pretty good camp,” Speier said. “I think I’m going to fit in wherever the manager sees fit. I think we’ve got a great group this year. Obviously I wasn’t here last year, but I think all six guys down there could close out games no problem.
“I’m really happy with how the entire rotation and bullpen are shaping up. I think we’re going to be tough to beat.”