Yuki Saito hasn’t justified the hype that came with his being drafted by the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters in 2010, but the reigning Japan Series champions aren’t giving up on him just yet.
The former amateur star, and current Fighters pitcher, made just 11 appearances for the top team this past season, logging an 0-1 record with a 4.56 ERA in 23⅔ innings.
Fighters manager Hideki Kuriyama was asked about Saito during his appearance at The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan earlier this week.
“Even in high school, he wasn’t the hardest-throwing pitcher or the pitcher with the best stuff, but he just knew how to win,” Kuriyama said. “I feel like that’s a special ability certain pitchers have, and I feel like Saito has that. When he made the transition to the professional level, he wasn’t able to execute the way he wanted. I guess he lacked confidence or skill. Whatever it was, he was lacking something.”
Saito was one of the most popular athletes in Japan during his amateur days. He rose to fame as the “Handkerchief Prince,” because of his habit of wiping sweat off his face with a blue handkerchief, during Summer Koshien in 2006, as he led Waseda Jitsugyo High School to its first-ever title. More accolades and titles followed during his college career at Waseda University, and the Fighters had to win a four-team lottery for his draft rights in 2010.
Success has been scarce at the pro level. Saito is just 14-20 with a 4.02 ERA in 68 appearances across six seasons.
“We still believe in him,” Kuriyama said. “Over the last two years, it’s kind of been downhill, but it’s our fault as a team. We need to make him better. Whether it’s different training or different practice (methods), whatever it is. I actually talked to him two days ago and told him what we think as a team. He also feels like he needs to perform next year. We still believe he has the skill set to perform, so we’re not giving up on him.”
Giant reunion: Two men who helped the San Francisco Giants win World Series titles in 2010, ’12, and ’14, got a chance to catch up at Tokyo Dome, coincidentally the home of NPB’s Yomiuri Giants, last week during the 2016 Samurai Japan Challenge.
San Francisco hitting coach Hensley Meulens was there as manger of the Netherlands while pitcher Sergio Romo, a free agent who spent the last nine years with MLB’s Giants, was playing for Mexico.
“He’s a great kid,” Meulens said of Romo. “Hopefully we can retain him. If not, I wish him luck. Wherever he goes, he’s going to help somebody.”
Romo and Mexico split two games against the Japanese, while Meulens’ Dutch team lost a pair of close contests.
“I got a chance to pitch at the Tokyo Dome,” Romo said. “That’s really super cool to me.”
Meulens is no stranger to Japan, having played for the Chiba Lotte Marines (1994) and Yakult Swallows (1995-96) in the past. Romo was in the country for the first time.
“I was able to walk around a little bit,” Romo said. “I went to some areas, got to see a couple temples. For me, it’s literally been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I really like how active everything seems to be. There are people all over always doing something. They always seem to be in a good mood, everyone says hi to you as you’re walking by. I’d definitely come back.”
Though on different teams, Meulens and Romo crossed paths a few times.
“He had his dad here, so he had family here, but we were staying in the same hotel, so we saw each other everyday and chatted for a little bit,” Meulens said.
Memories: Shohei Otani was the star attraction during the 2016 Samurai Japan Challenge. Before a game against Mexico last week, Los Angeles Dodgers star Adrian Gonzalez gave the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters star a gift and posed for a few pictures with him. After Japan’s final game, a few of the Dutch players could be seen taking selfies with Otani on the field.
The Japanese team also exchanged gifts with players from both Mexico and the Netherlands on the field, and one Mexican player got a little extra.
During the fifth inning of the first game, Mexico first baseman Jesus Castillo made a little small talk with Shogo Akiyama, after the Seibu Lions player had drawn a walk. Castillo joked about exchanging bats, and the next day, Akiyama came over during the Mexicans’ practice and supplied said lumber.
“It’s pretty cool,” Castillo said. “I think Japanese bats, gloves and everything is all really good. This is the big leagues over here.”