Tomoyuki Sugano stood on the mound at Tokyo Dome in the top of the ninth inning of his first postseason game with a three-run lead, over 45,000 people screaming — Yomiuri Giants fans in support, Hiroshima Carp fans in opposition — and the bases full of other team’s players.
At the plate was hulking Carp slugger Brad Eldred, who with one swing of the bat could put Hiroshima ahead and turn the Central League Climax Series Final Stage into a real series again.
This was very likely one of the moments Sugano dreamed about during his year in self-imposed exile. He’d wanted to pitch for the Giants (presently managed by his uncle Tatsunori Hara) so badly, he left the game for a year after being drafted by another team.
Sugano got his wish of being drafted by the Kyojin in 2012, and so far has been as good as advertised.
He got through that tough spot in the ninth in Game 2 on Thursday, easing past Eldred with one out and retiring the next batter to secure a 3-0 win (and a 3-0 series lead for Yomiuri, which has a one-game advantage), all while somehow keeping his emotions in check.
“I just didn’t want to lose my first postseason game,” Sugano said afterward.
Truth be told, the right-hander had a solid season for the Giants, but Thursday night was his coming-out party.
Sugano was nothing short of brilliant, holding the Carp to three singles, walking just one batter, and striking out a Climax Series record-tying 11.
“I think I got a hit off him almost every time we faced him (this season),” Eldred said. “Tonight he was a little bit better. He was staying away from me a little bit, but he was kind of doing the same thing to everybody. He’s got a lot of good life on his ball, so obviously guys were having a tough time laying off.”
Sugano teased the Carp with sinkers, fastballs and a forkball that felt better than it ever had this year.
“I didn’t expect it’d be that effective,” Sugano said. “But I used it in my last outing and had a good feeling about it. I worked on it while playing catch and pitching in the bullpen, and I’m glad it helped my result today.
“I was able to make them miss with different pitches and make them look with various pitches. I don’t think they knew what they should look to hit until the end. I feel like if I can keep this up, I can have better performances.”
After a year spent mostly out of the game working out on his own, Sugano was 13-6 with a 3.12 ERA for the Giants in his first pro season. The Tokai University product was considered one of the prizes of the 2011 draft, but it was well known his preference was to play for Yomiuri.
When the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters beat the Giants in a lottery for his rights, Sugano chose to sit out for a year and re-enter the draft in ’12, when he was chosen by the Kyojin.
His path to NPB notwithstanding, Sugano has rapidly blossomed into one of the rising stars in Japanese baseball, and performance in the ninth inning of Game 2, which brought the Giants within a win of a second-straight trip to the Japan Series, will only add to his burgeoning profile.
“Sugano had pitched so well all game, so I decided to stick with him until the end,” Hara said. “I’m glad it worked out.”