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Fighters’ Saito braces for vital year

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Yuki Saito is hard at work in Chiba, at Kamagaya Stadium, the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters’ ni-gun base, these days. He’s busy preparing for the upcoming season, which might turn out to be a pivotal one for the star pitcher.

The 2015 campaign will be Saito’s fifth as a professional. The 26-year-old will enter it searching for a modicum of consistency in a career that’s been a roller-coaster of highs and lows. His goal right now is to make it to spring training healthy and not only win a job in the starting rotation, but make sure he remains there throughout the season.

“The competition has already begun,” he told Sports Nippon last week.

Saito’s initial workouts consisted of some running and playing catch, and he’s since thrown a couple of bullpen sessions, stretching out the bothersome right shoulder that is at once both the main source of his troubles, a 2013 injury to his right labrum has mostly derailed his career for the past two seasons, and the major key to the revival he seeks.

It’s a rebirth that could begin in the bullpen, as some reports have Fighters manager Hideki Kuriyama thinking about using him as a reliever, for at least part of this season.

The main question is, what type of pitcher will Saito be this year?

He wasn’t exactly a flamethrower to begin with and his stuff isn’t jaw-dropping, so his fate will depend mostly on his command. Saito can be pretty good when everything is working, but has had trouble being very good on a consistent basis. There would be less pressure on him in a bullpen role, with a lighter workload and fewer chances for opposing hitters to get a real bead on him.

Saito, however, told reporters last week that he wants to start and is hoping to do enough to win one of the coveted places in the rotation.

Imagining Saito in the bullpen feels like a bigger fall from grace than it is in reality. He hasn’t tumbled down the mountainside from on high, he’d already slipped a ways — his pitches betrayed him before his shoulder did — and injuries set him back even further.

Saito was already a superstar when he arrived in the pro ranks. He was the prince of amateur baseball after leading Waseda Jitsugyo to victory in 2006’s summer Koshien, winning a final for the ages, and later embarked on a triumphant collegiate career at Waseda University.

The Fighters won a four-team lottery for his rights at the 2010 draft, and about 400 reporters, 50 television crews and even a helicopter, greeted the rookie on his first day of spring training.

The reality has so far failed to live up to the hype. Saito has been inconsistent and has an unimpressive 13-16 career mark with a 3.66 ERA in four seasons.

Partly, due to his injuries, he’s spent more time on the farm than with the top team over the last two seasons — Saito has appeared just seven ichi-gun games from 2013-2014 — and was hardly impressive on the ni-gun level, going 2-10 with a 5.55 ERA in 24 appearances on the farm since 2013.

Perhaps Saito was able to work out the kinks last year. Maybe this is the year he reclaims some of his lost luster and stands alongside current Fighters phenom, Shohei Otani as a member of the starting rotation. Only time will tell, but the first step will be putting on a good show for Kuriyama and the coaching staff during spring training beginning Feb. 1.

Yuki Saito, once on top of the baseball world, is working now just to remain at least a notable part of it. His work in Chiba is the foundation, as he steels himself for the challenge ahead, when he hopes to prove to the Fighters and the team’s fans that his best days are still ahead, and not just heroic tales of days gone by.