Yoshihisa Naruse was the new kid on the block back in 2006, a fresh face in his first season pitching for a Chiba Lotte Marines team that had won the Japan Series the year before.
Lotte’s rotation was loaded with experience that season, with veterans Hiroyuki Kobayashi, Naoyuki Shimizu and Shunsuke Watanabe — a trio that helped Japan win the first World Baseball Classic prior to the ’06 season — alongside longtime hurler Shingo Ono and second-year outlier Yasutomo Kubo.
A lot has changed since that season, when Naruse went 5-5 in 13 starts. The ensuing years saw the Marines fall one win short of a trip to the Japan Series in 2007; endure a fifth-place finish and manager Bobby Valentine’s controversy-tinged exit in 2009; enjoy the highs of a Japan Series title in 2010; suffer through a last-place finish in 2011; and deal with manager Norifumi’s Nishimura’s departure after a disappointing 2012 campaign.
One of the constants along the way was been Naruse, who weathered a plethora of ups and downs as the sands shifted around him. He even retained his boyish features — wispy goatee or not.
The most notable difference for Naruse, currently the only Lotte pitcher older than 23 with at least four starts this season, has been the transition from wide-eyed rookie to veteran leader of a very young pitching staff.
“I’m 27, I’m still young,” Naruse told The Japan Times in the home dugout at QVC Marine Field. “I feel a lot of responsibility. Before, almost all the pitchers on the team were older than I am. Now, almost everybody is as young or even younger. My role is to lead them, teach them. I’ve been with the first team as long as anyone. So I have to perform as a leader.”
Naruse has done his job thus far, and at 5-1 with a 2.19 ERA has played a big role in the first-place Marines’ surprising start this year.
Naruse is regarded as the Marines’ ace, and knows it’s a tag that’s not to be taken lightly, saying, “Players with that status have to meet expectations even when the team is struggling. You have to be the leader of the team and pitchers.”
Where ace pitchers such as Yu Darvish or Masahiro Tanaka rely on power, talent and seemingly at times the sheer force of their will, Naruse is craftier, using command and location to keep hitters off balance.
Naruse was 16-1 with a 1.82 ERA in 173⅓ innings in 2007, so he can be dominant, but his biggest contribution is the confidence the Marines have when he’s on the mound. As Lotte infielder Josh Whitesell pointed out earlier in the season, “We feel like we should win when he pitches. He’s our ace.”
Naruse’s calm temperament is also differs from that of Darvish and Tanaka and similar hurlers, who project an intense aura from the pitching rubber and will sometimes let loose with a guttural roar after big moments.
“I may look calm, but I might not be,” Naruse joked. “I shout in some situations, but usually I stay calm. Darvish and Ma-kun are very stylish, but I can’t play that way. That is not my style. I just stay calm and try to finish the game.”
In his seventh ichi-gun season Naruse is 80-52 with a career 2.95 ERA and 999 strikeouts.
He was 12-0 against Pacific League teams during the 2007 regular season, with the lone defeat of a 16-1 campaign coming against the Yokohama BayStars during interleague play.
The first loss he suffered against a PL team that year came during the decisive fifth game of the PL Climax Series Final Stage when he lost a highly anticipated duel against Darvish and the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters for the right to go to the Japan Series.
A few years later, Naruse started and won Lotte’s final game of the season to clinch a berth in the 2010 Climax Series.
He then went 4-0 in the postseason (including a pair of road victories against the PL champion Fukuoka Softbank Hawks in the final stage of the Climax Series), winning the PL Climax Series MVP Award and helping the Marines become the first third-place team to capture the Japan Series title.
“He pretty much just shut us down,” said Yomiuri Giants pitcher D.J. Houlton, a member of the Hawks in 2010. “He’s got good control and it just seems like he knows what he’s doing out there. He’s not overpowering, but he hits his spots and just kind of moves the ball in and out. He’s always a tough pitcher.”
Naruse said he learned valuable lessons from both his Climax Series failure in 2007, and Lotte’s title run in 2010.
“Now, I can control my mind and not get nervous no matter the situation,” he said. “As an ace, you shouldn’t panic, or your team will panic.”
Naruse is fond of hitting things when he’s not on the mound. He’s an avid golfer in the off-season — he says his best score is 86 — and during the year gets a kick out of being able to bat in Central League stadiums during interleague games.
“I love batting,” Naruse said, despite being a cool 0-for-8 so far this year. “Even pitchers have to contribute, by bunting, executing squeeze plays, or hitting as the ninth batter.
“I’m enjoying the interleague season as a rare chance to hit. I feel bad when I fail to get a hit. If I get hits, I help myself, but sometimes my stress level gets too high from hitting, and that breaks my pitching rhythm.”
Even as he takes his cuts during interleague play, Naruse has his sights set on the second half of the season. The Marines got off to a good start last year, only to fall apart after the All-Star break.
Naruse says he has to take a leading role in helping the team avoid a similar fate this season. To that end, he’s worked on improving his conditioning in order to be ready for the stretch run.
“Not only last year, when our team stayed atop in the first half and went down later, but in last three seasons, I had complete games in the first half, but none in the latter half,” Naruse said. “It’s because of the lack of stamina.
“I threw too many pitches early in the season, because I wanted to complete games and give the bullpen some rest. That caused me to pitch a lot.
“Now I try to limit myself to 120 pitches or less per game, and I get help from the bullpen, so that I’ll have the stamina to throw a complete game later in the year, when we’ll have tougher games.”