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Fighters rookie Otani ‘ready’ for pro pitching debut

The 18-year-old to take hill for Hokkaido Nippon Ham farm team

by Jason Coskrey

Staff Writer

The “Shohei Otani Experience” shifts ever so slightly towards its second phase on Thursday, when the celebrated rookie is scheduled to make his pitching debut for the Kamagaya Fighters, the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters’ ni-gun squad.

“This is my first start,” Otani said Thursday at Tokyo Dome. “I’ll be ready for anything.”

Otani will face the Chiba Lotte Marines’ farm team in an 11 a.m. start at QVC Marine Field. The game was originally scheduled to take place at Lotte’s minor-league home in Urawa, Saitama Prefecture, but was shifted to the ichi-gun team’s stadium in anticipation of a much larger turnout than usual with Otani taking the mound.

The rookie was pretty even-keel on the eve of his first start, and has been given a plan of action by the Nippon Ham coaching staff.

“I was told to be aware of my timing with the batters,” Otani said. “I need to be aggressive. Coach (pitching coach Tomohiro Kuroki) says it’s important to have a good start. So if I pitch well against the first nine batters, it will be OK.”

Otani will likely be on the mound for about 80 pitches and said he wants to establish a good rhythm early. He’s not yet sure how much of his repertoire he’ll use during the contest.

“I don’t know before going into the game, but I will throw a lot of fastballs,” he said. “As I get deeper into the game, I may try some other pitches.”

The rookie has been pulling double duty this season, batting and playing as a right fielder on the top team, while working on his pitching at the ni-gun level.

Otani has already learned valuable lessons as a hitter, but isn’t sure whether stepping into the batter’s box on a semi-regular basis will prove to be an asset to him on the mound.

“I’ve gotten some hints by watching the combination of pitches I’ve seen,” Otani said. “I’ll just do what I can do.”

The 18-year-old originally had his sights set on heading to the majors out of Iwate Prefecture’s Hanamaki Higashi High School last fall. Armed with a 160-kph fastball, he had a number of MLB suitors, but was nonetheless drafted by Nippon Ham. The Fighters could not have prevented his move to the United States, but still successfully convinced Otani to begin his career in Sapporo.

Thursday promises to be a full day for Otani, who will report to the ichi-gun team at Tokyo Dome later that night for the final game of the Fighters’ series against the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles. Otani is hoping to get things off to a good beginning with a solid outing in Chiba.

“The starting pitcher sets the pace of the game,” Otani said. “That’s very important.”