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Fighters rookie Otani makes solid impression in mound debut

by Jason Coskrey

As far as debuts go, Shohei Otani’s delivered. The celebrated rookie pitched fairly well on Thursday night, and though he finished outside the decision, he left the mound with the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters well within striking distance of the Tokyo Yakult Swallows. The game ended in a 3-3 tie.

The 18-year-old threw 86 pitches, allowing a pair of runs on six hits while striking out two and walking three.

Otani didn’t blow anyone away, but he was good enough, and for now, that’s enough.

Otani’s blistering fastball is what first caught the attention of Japanese and MLB scouts, and he leaned on it during his outing.

Sixty-four of his pitches were fastballs, including all 10 in the first inning. He sat in the 150s (kph), twice cranking it up to 156 and topping out at 157. One of his best pitches of the night was a fastball with pretty good movement that tailed away from Akinori Iwamura at 152 kph during the third inning. Otani also threw a few plus sliders, but overall the pitch was a bit inconsistent.

Still, he showed flashes, however brief, of the potential that put him on the map. It was on display during in his first meeting with Wladimir Balentien, currently second in Japan with 14 home runs. Otani began the at-bat with a 152-kph fastball up and away in the zone that Balentien fouled off. He came back with a 128-kph slider in almost the same place that Balentien took for strike two. Otani ended the at-bat with a crisp 134-kph slider outside the zone that Balentien swung through for strike three.

The Swallows had a double and a triple among their six hits and were a good first test for the rookie. The team has former major leaguers in Lastings Milledge, two-time reigning Central League home run king Balentien, and Iwamura, while also featuring Kazuhiro Hatakeyama, a slugger who has never played in the majors but can hit the ball a mile. The Swallows have been decimated by injuries this year, but what they have left can still hit the ball well.

Otani didn’t overpower Yakult, but he gave his team a chance to win and handled the pressure about as well as can be expected from an 18-year-old making his much-anticipated debut while wearing Yu Darvish’s old number.

Speaking of Darvish, get ready for the comparisons because they’re not going away, not when the No. 11 is plastered on Otani’s back like a target. For what it’s worth, Darvish made 14 starts in his rookie season, finishing 5-5 with a 3.53 ERA and 52 strikeouts in 94.1 innings.

There’s no use trying to separate Otani from the hype either. The Fighters, for one, won’t let you. Having already gone through a similar situation in 2011 with the Handkerchief Prince Yuki Saito, the Fighters were ready to cash in on Otani’s debut. The team made sure to reveal the date of his start days in advance, and announced a raft of giveaways, including certificates of attendance to lucky fans. Needless to say, Nippon Ham won’t be jumping off the gravy train anytime soon.

Overall, Otani was impressive.

The contest was really the second debut for the rookie, who is attempting to be a two-way player. He was in right field for the Fighters on Opening Day, finishing 2-for-4 with an RBI. Otani is hitting .307 with five doubles and three RBIs in 39 at-bats this season.

Now that the Fighters have some regular-season tape of Otani pitching against top-level hitters, they can work on smoothing out the kinks in his game.

Otani may yet take Japanese baseball by storm. He didn’t do it on night No. 1, but he at least got off to a good start.