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Bar set high for rookie stars Sugano, Otani

by Jason Coskrey

The Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters have spent a first-round draft pick on the top pitching prospect in Japan in each of the last two years, and in both instances that player has initially said thanks, but no thanks.

For Tomoyuki Sugano the allure of pitching in Tokyo Dome for the Yomiuri Giants and his uncle, Kyojin manager Tatsunori Hara, was too great. Sugano was drafted by the Fighters in 2011, but wasn’t swayed by the team’s pitch and sat out the 2012 season with hopes of later being drafted by the Giants.

The Fighters, nothing if not persistent, drafted high-school phenom Shohei Otani, who by his own word was bound for the majors, the very next season. This time Nippon Ham got its man, convincing Otani to put a U.S. move on hold for a few more years and hone his skills in Sapporo.

Both players made their pro debuts over the weekend, Otani for Nippon Ham and Sugano for Yomiuri, and over the course of the year will play under heavy scrutiny as they attempt to live up to the expectations their actions have helped create.

Hanshin Tigers rookie pitcher Shintaro Fujinami will be under the spotlight as well, but hasn’t made the lofty proclamations that have been attributed to his fellow rookies.

There will be no shortage of poking, prodding and dissecting their each and every move this season, but we can start with this: both had a decent debut. Otani, a pitcher on the farm team, started in right field for the ichi-gun squad and picked up a pair of hits and two RBIs in a 5-3 win over the Seibu Lions on Friday, NPB’s Opening Night.

Sugano faced the Hiroshima Carp Saturday and threw seven innings of one-run ball, striking out nine and walking one. The game ended in a 1-1 tie.

“He pitched both sides of the plate,” Carp outfielder Fred Lewis said. “I’ve never seen him before and he’s never seen me before . . . so just trying to feel me out, and I was doing the same thing, trying to feel him out. But he pitched a great game.”

Sugano threw 103 pitches in his debut, and showed poise on the mound during the few occasions he pitched himself into trouble.

“I decided I wasn’t going to live or die with each pitch,” he said.

That’s a good idea to have for both players. In large part because of Otani’s public desire to play in the U.S. and Sugano’s steadfastness about wanting to pitch for the Giants, both will operate under even more scrutiny than usual as fans will want to see if Otani lives up to the immense hype, or if Sugano was worth the trouble.

Neither showed any cracks in their foundations in their first appearances on the big stage, but how they perform as the media attention continues to swell will be the true test.

“Once you’re out on the field, you’re not paying attention to that stuff,” said Yomiuri reliever Scott Mathieson. “It’s when you’re off the field that you start to hear the media and everything.”

Some players thrive under the spotlight. Yu Darvish never wavered when the lights were at their brightest, fed off the attention and used it to his advantage.

Only time will tell if Otani and Sugano show the same resolve. Although unlike Darvish, their first steps come in a social media age that’s changed dramatically even in just the three short years since the last great pitching sensation, Yuki Saito, was drafted by, who else, Nippon Ham.

More fans than ever will watch them perform and their opinions will flood the internet within seconds of each success or failure the young players experience. Through all this, both will have to perform at a high level, and deal with the pressure.

Sugano and Otani graced prime real estate in the sports papers over the weekend, but that’s just the first step in two journeys — that both involved being drafted by the Fighters — that will be watched and scrutinized like almost never before every step of the way.