Oka looking to rein in knuckleball

by Jason Coskrey

Staff Writer

The last few years have seen a small group of pitchers trying to master the knuckleball in an attempt to revive or extend their careers.

Toronto Blue Jays pitcher R.A. Dickey rode the pitch to the NL Cy Young Award while pitching for the New York Mets in 2012, becoming the poster boy for hurlers picking up the pitch as a last-ditch effort to stay on the MLB diamond.

Former NPB pitcher Tomokazu Oka is among the latest to join the club and is hoping to use the pitch to facilitate a return to the majors.

Oka has already taken the first step to a return, having agreed to a minor league deal with the Blue Jays, a deal that was first reported by Sportsnet’s Shi Davidi last week.

“We’re just going to take a shot,” Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos said during baseball’s winter meetings in Orlando last week. “We’ve got R.A. here, and we’re going to see how he does.”

As is the case in the majors, there’s not a long list of NPB players that could be described as knuckleball pitchers.

There were none in Japan in 2013, with the last being Jared Fernandez, who pitched for the Hiroshima Carp in 2007. The most notable Japanese hurler currently utilizing the pitch is “Knuckle Princess” Eri Yoshida, a 21-year old female pitcher who played for the Na Koa Ikaika Maui in the North American Baseball League in 2012 and is currently a member of the Ishikawa Million Stars in the independent BC League.

Former Yomiuri Giants player Hitoshi Miki, now pitching in the independent leagues, is also said to throw the pitch.

The often unpredictable nature of the pitch makes it a nightmare for hitters and catchers alike.

Famed Pittsburgh Pirates hitter Willie Stargell once described it by saying, “Throwing a knuckleball for a strike is like throwing a butterfly with hiccups across the street into your neighbor’s mailbox.”

After facing 45-year-old knuckler Charlie Hough in 1993, former Philadelphia Phillies slugger John Kruk told the Orlando Sun Sentinal’s Ed Guiliotti that, “You just have to hope it hits your bat, and I don’t know if I have the patience for that. “I’d probably rather have my legs cut off than face him every day.”

The 37-year-old Oka is trying to use the pitch to put the finishing touches on an already full career.

Oka debuted for the Yokohama BayStars in 1994 and remained with the team through the Japan Series-winning 1998 campaign.

He spent the next 10 years in the majors, pitching for the Boston Red Sox, Montreal Expos (who became the Washington Nationals in 2004), Milwaukee Brewers, Blue Jays, and Cleveland Indians before returning to Yokohama for the 2010 and 2011 seasons.

Oka had surgery on his right shoulder in 2011 and was 7-7 with a 3.73 ERA for the Toyama Thunderbirds in the BC League this year.

Last domino falls: Eight players applied for free agency over the offseason, and now all eight have found new homes.

Pitcher Hideaki Wakui was the last man standing until Sunday, when he agreed to join the Chiba Lotte Marines.

In nine pro seasons, all with the Seibu Lions, Wakui is 85-73 with a 3.36 ERA and 37 saves. The right-hander was a 17-game winner in 2007, was a key part of the Lions’ Japan Series-winning team in 2008, and won the Sawamura Award in 2009.

The move reunites Wakui with Lotte manager Tsutomu Ito, who managed Wakui at Seibu from 2005-2007.

Wakui’s loss bookends a tough couple of weeks for Seibu, which also lost second baseman Yasuyuki Kataoka to the Yomiuri Giants through free agency and saw third baseman Esteban German sign with the Orix Buffaloes.

Headed to the show: Chiba Lotte Marines hurler Shunsuke Watanabe will get to see how his submarine pitching style goes over in the U.S., having signed a minor league deal with the Boston Red Sox over the weekend.

Watanabe is notable for having one of the lowest release points in baseball, sometimes scraping his knuckles and knees while on the mound.

Watanabe helped Lotte capture the 2005 Japan Series and was apart of Japan’s victorious World Baseball Classic squads in 2006 and 2009.

The righty is 87-82 in 13 seasons with the Marines, but has been slowed by injures in recent seasons.

After making at least 20 appearances each year from 2003-2011, Watanabe was limited to 19 over the last two seasons combined.