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Otani’s legend grows with PL pennant-clinching win

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Shohei Otani was sublime on Wednesday night. He was dazzling, superb, resplendent. He was all that and more, almost more than there are adjectives to describe him. Basically at Saitama Seibu Prince Dome on Wednesday night, Shohei Otani the pitcher was good enough, for a moment, to make you forget about Shohei Otani the batter.

Otani threw one of the best games of the season in a 1-0 Fighters victory over the Seibu Lions that clinched the Pacific League pennant. Of the Lions who started the game, only Tomoya Mori and Tatsuyuki Uemoto made it on base; only Shuta Tonosaki avoided striking out.

This was a start that will fan the flames of Otani’s already burgeoning folk hero-like stature. On one of the most important stages the 22-year-old has performed on, he stood tall and delivered. He went the distance, allowing a single to Mori in the fifth and walking Uemoto in the ninth. He struck out 15, with 11 Lions going down swinging.

Among his 125 pitches listed were 53 fastballs, 63 sliders and nine forkballs. He mixed and matched his offerings, leaving hitters flailing at air. Nursing a 1-0 lead against a team that led the PL in home runs, Otani’s margin for error went as far as his next pitch and he never faltered.

It was a prime-time performance that had many watching it transfixed, not only because of the numbers, but the situation.

Otani was on the road and pitching for the first pennant of his young career with the hopes of the team and its fans on his shoulders. Runs were at a premium because the pitcher on the other side, Yusei Kikuchi, a hard-throwing lefty who was Iwate Prefecture’s Hanamaki Higashi High School’s pitching phenom before Otani, was keeping the Fighters off the board.

“We weren’t able to do it yesterday,” Otani was quoted as saying by Sports Nippon. “My turn in the rotation doesn’t come up often in a game like this. It was special for me with Yusei starting. This was the best situation to get this win.”

Otani wasn’t at his best at the beginning, but eventually found his bearings. By the time Kikuchi committed his fatal flaw, a high, 2-1 slider that Brandon Laird drove beyond the left-field wall in the fourth inning, Otani was in total control.

“His pitching was amazing,” Kikuchi was quoted as saying by Sports Nippon afterward.

As he walked out to the mound for the ninth there were fans holding up No. 11 Fighters jerseys. The uniforms differed in that they represented different eras in the team’s history, or were simply special tops, but the common thread was the “Otani” above the number.

It’s hard to imagine a player could come along and so quickly live up to the legend of that number’s previous owner, Yu Darvish, but it’s also hard to imagine a player like Otani.

Yesterday’s victory left him with a 10-4 record, 1.86 ERA, and 174 strikeouts. At the plate, he’s hitting .322 with 22 home runs and 67 RBIs in 323 at-bats. He can hit, he can pitch, and he might just be the most interesting man in baseball. NPB fans count their blessings to be able to watch him up close and MLB fans count the days until he (possibly) is available to North American teams.

Otani, who had a pinch-hit double the day before his whirlwind turn on the mound, is a generational talent. He can throw 163 kph and he can mash home runs. He was a pretty decent right fielder, too, before the team put the kibosh on that — lest the established order of things gets shaken up too, too much.

He can quite simply do it all. On Wednesday, he did it from the mound, and his night only added to the growing phenomenon that is Shohei Otani.