Japan has always produced good pitchers.
The country’s first major leaguer, Masanori Murakami, was a pitcher; its second was Hideo Nomo, a right-hander with a strange tornado-style delivery who swept the U.S. up in Nomomania during the summer of 1995 and became the catalyst for the current migration of Japanese stars to the majors; while today, Yu Darvish is among the more notable players in MLB.
That’s to say nothing of the legions of Japanese pitching greats who stayed home.
Pitching just seems to be in Japan’s baseball blood.
So when Darvish and the rest of Japan’s MLB stars passed on playing in the 2013 World Baseball Classic, the popular assumption was that the pitching staff, at least, would continue rolling along, this time under the stewardship of new ace Masahiro Tanaka.
The 24-year-old already has the pedigree with 75 career wins and 1,055 strikeouts in six seasons for the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles.
He beat out Darvish for the Sawamura Award in 2011, and last year finished 10-4 with a 1.87 ERA and 169 strikeouts.
So he’s assumed the mantle of Japan’s ace with good reasons, although he hasn’t pitched like much of an one this spring.
Tanaka has had issues with the WBC ball, said to be more slippery than its NPB counterpart, and struggled in his first practice game against the Hiroshima Carp, allowing a pair of runs on three hits in two innings.
He was shaky again Saturday against Australia, allowing two first-inning runs, though he improved later in a three-inning outing.
“He was very cautious early on,” Japan manager Koji Yamamoto said after that game. “He was trying to pitch while making sure he had a good grip on the ball. So I guess that’s why he didn’t have good rhythm.”
Samurai Japan’s No. 2 pitcher, Kenta Maeda, hasn’t been much better.
The Hiroshima Carp star has also had trouble with the ball, and has been dealing with a slight shoulder problem, which all but took away his velocity during the practice game against Japan earlier in the month (Maeda pitched for the Carp in that contest).
Unlike Tanaka, Maeda got off to a good start against Australia on Sunday. However his night fell apart in the third inning, when he walked the first two batters. The righty retired the next two hitters, but then yielded a three-run homer to Luke Hughes.
“I was worried about Maeda too,” Yamamoto said. “As far as the first couple of innings, he was doing well and had a good grip on the ball. But he appeared to lose it in the third and gave up some hits.”
With the Japanese offense sputtering along, the pressure is on Japan’s pitchers to keep the team in games and protect slim leads.
The good news for Yamamoto and company is that the majority of the other pitchers have performed well.
The Hanshin Tigers’ Atsushi Nomi has been particularly good.
Nomi, who has thrown five scoreless innings in two appearances, was Japan’s most effective pitcher against both the Carp and the Australians.
“I just wanted to make sure I resolved my problems with the strike zone and figure out how I will pitch when I have runners on base,” he said after facing Australia Feb 23. “Also I wanted to make sure which breaking balls I could use. I had some problems and found some issues that I should correct, but overall, I think I pitched well.”
Yomiuri Giants lefties Toshiya Sugiuchi and Tetsuya Utsumi, Fukuoka Softbank Hawks duo Tadashi Settsu and Masahiko Morifuku and the Seibu Lions’ Kazuhisa Makita have also pitched well.
Japan’s current offensive malaise means Yamamoto can’t afford to stick with a floundering starter for too long, meaning the remaining pitchers will need to be ready at a moment’s notice.
No matter how the others perform, all eyes will be on Tanaka and Maeda initially, and Japanese fans expect their two aces to lead the charge to a third WBC crown.
“You could tell it was a practice game for him,” Australia’s Justin Huber said of Tanaka Saturday. “He’ll probably be better in a week (when the tournament begins).”
Huber, who played with Maeda in Hiroshima in 2010, doesn’t expect the Carp star to buckle under the weight of expectation either.
“He handled pressure better than most guys I know his age,” Huber said. “He really reminded me a lot of Zack Grienke and what he sort of went through as a young player coming through the Royals organization. Look at him now, nothing can stop him. He goes from one high to another. I expect Maeda Kenta is going to be that same kind of guy here in Japan.”