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Carp ace Maeda puts focus on raising level

Kyodo

Hiroshima Carp ace Kenta Maeda has made no secret of his desire to pitch in the big leagues, but said that will depend on how much he can raise his game.

Maeda, who won the 2010 Sawamura Award as Japan’s best starting pitcher and was named to the all-tournament team at last year’s World Baseball Classic, said he’s been thinking about a future in the majors since a pair of contemporaries, Yu Darvish and Hisashi Iwakuma, went to the States.

“My dream (in high school) was just to turn pro,” Maeda told Kyodo News on Sunday before a preseason game at QVC Marine Field. “I didn’t really watch them (big league games) that much.

“But as far as the majors go, seeing Darvish and Iwakuma — pitchers I’d played against in Japan — made me want to go, too.

“But what Darvish did, or what Iwakuma did in Japan, isn’t easy. And to compete over there in those stadiums, it’s harder. For me to make it, I’m going to have to try a little more.”

Of course, much will depend on whether Maeda will be made available through the posting system now that the penurious Carp only stand to make as much as $20 million from his transfer.

“That’s something that will happen after the season,” he said. “The first thing is to put up some good numbers and win a championship.”

After years in the bottom half of the Central League, the Carp reached the playoffs last season. Maeda pitched two good games but the Carp lost to the league champion Yomiuri Giants in the final stage, in which the champions begin with a one-win advantage and play all the games at home.

“The current setup favors the league champion, so it made me realize that you have to win the championship,” he said. “We made it to third place, but now we have to look toward another number, and that number is one.”

After Masahiro Tanaka struck a $155 million deal with the New York Yankees with his highly regarded split-fingered fastball this year, it sounded natural when Maeda said he would take his own splitter out of mothballs.

It hasn’t worked out, however.

“It isn’t really that good,” Maeda said of his splitter. “I try it every year but I haven’t been able to get it to work very well. To a point, I can get the job done with the pitches I have.

“My pitching form is pretty much set, and the same goes for my pitches, so I keep thinking if I add another pitch, I can add a new dimension. So I want to keep trying.”

“I think the key for me is the fastball,” he continued. “Having a really good fastball makes my other pitches better.

“It’s a lot of little issues with the fastball. I’m not there yet, but if I can master them, it will open things up for me.”

The 25-year-old may be in a better position to do that now due to his participation in the WBC. Maeda started and lost Japan’s semifinal game to Puerto Rico in San Francisco, but said the experience was invaluable.

“The biggest thing (about the WBC) was being able to play overseas,” he said. “It was an extremely difficult environment. The time zone was different and so was the food. But despite that, we played and I was able to pitch the way I expect to.

“Returning to the environment I grew up in, everything was so easy. The ball was different, too, but I was able to cope with it and that built confidence, too.

“In Japan, sometimes the ball will be dirty or it will be a little different and that used to bother me. But having adapted to a different ball, I realize some balls are just different and it’s no big deal.”

While the situation was difficult, he loved the hard major league mounds and the ballparks.

“The atmosphere was amazing,” Maeda said. “I felt like this is the difference between ‘yakyu’ and baseball. The style of cheering is different. It was like a different game. The fans cheer players who make good plays, regardless of whether he’s playing for your team or the opponents. They really applaud you and they can cheer without using instruments.”

“It was a different feeling and I liked it. But it’s another kind of baseball entirely and for my own future, I think it’s good to learn more.”

And if Maeda does go, he might a chance to face Tanaka.

“I’ve never pitched against him — even once. I want to do that in the big leagues.”