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Matsui finds comfort zone in ninth

by

Staff Writer

When Yuki Matsui burst on the scene as a second-year player for Toko Gakuen at Summer Koshien in 2012, he was a sight to behold. He looked like one of the smallest players on the field, but the diminutive lefty’s stature belied the fact that he was a giant with the ball in his hands.

Matsui zipped an array of pitches past opposing hitters, striking out 22 in one game and 19 in another. He was an instant sensation. NPB teams took notice as well, and in 2013 there were five clubs in a lottery for his rights at the draft, with Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles president Yozo Tachibana pulling out the proverbial golden ticket.

Matsui had a somewhat rude welcome to life as a pro last season. He began the year in the starting rotation but was sent down with an 0-3 record and 6.05 ERA after four starts, the last straw being an outing against the Seibu Lions on April 23, during which Matsui walked eight in five innings.

He came back up later as a reliever and was starting again eventually, but it was an up-and-down year.

Matsui is back in the bullpen, but looks much more comfortable this year as the Eagles’ closer. On Sunday, he was given a two-run lead in the ninth inning against the Lions at Seibu Prince Dome and retired three batters in order to nail down his 10th save of the year, third most in the Pacific League.

“I was just thinking about holding them down with my pitching,” Matsui was quoted as saying by Nikkan Sports. “My goal (for the year) wasn’t to get 10 saves, but it’s a turning point. So I’m happy and a little relieved.”

The 174-cm hurler has been near the top of his game in his current role. In 21 innings (including non-save situations), Matsui has allowed one run and struck out 28. He also has two holds in his 17 appearances.

Among PL pitchers with at least one save, only the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks’ Dennis Sarfate has logged more innings (21⅔) or struck out more batters (30). Tony Barnette, of the Central League’s Tokyo Yakult Swallows, is the only closer with at least 20 innings pitched to have allowed fewer runs — Barnette has thrown 20⅓ scoreless frames this season.

It’s not out of the ordinary for Matsui to show improvement with a year under his belt. He had a typical rookie season, experiencing the same bumps and bruises that befall other young pitchers, and finished 4-8 with a 3.80 ERA in 27 appearances, 17 as a starter.

He just looks so much more in control this season.

While closing often comes with the pressure of having the game hanging in the balance, it also simplifies the thought process — just go out and get (usually) three outs — and allows pitchers to really cut loose for one or two innings. With no need to conserve energy or hold anything back for later in the game, closers can unleash a fusillade of pitches from their entire arsenal.

Matsui is attacking hitters late in games and getting results. Against Seibu on Sunday, he kept things simple, with 13 fastballs (ranging from 135-149 kph) and just two sliders mixed in, but he has other pitches, and a touch more velocity, at his disposal.

Being more aggressive has served Matsui well at this early juncture. His wildness slips through the cracks on occasion, but he looks more comfortable on the mound.

Matsui is only in his second year and just 19 years old. The future could very well see him taking the lessons he’s learned in the bullpen back into the starting rotation some day — perhaps even this year. For now at least, Matsui is, one inning at a time, beginning to look like the guy the Eagles hope he becomes.