Baseball / Japanese Baseball

Ace Kodai Senga stellar again for Hawks in Japan Series opener

by Jason Coskrey

Staff writer

Every team had a shot at Kodai Senga.

Even the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, who ultimately ended up with him, passed on the right-hander a few times during the 2010 draft before taking him as a fourth-choice developmental player.

Oh how he has developed.

Fast-forward almost a decade later and Senga is one of Japan’s top pitchers. On Saturday night in Fukuoka, he pitched in Game 1 of the Japan Series for the third time in as many years. Even after a slow start, he left the mound having thrown seven innings of one-run ball in SoftBank’s 7-2 win.

Game 1 was Senga’s third appearance of the postseason. He didn’t have a great start to the Pacific League Climax Series, allowing four runs in seven innings against the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles in the first stage. He pitched in Game 3 of the final stage, striking out 10 over eight scoreless innings against the PL champion Seibu Lions.

“Pitching in the Japan Series is hard both physically and mentally,” Hawks manager Kimiyasu Kudo said. “He pitched for us during the Climax Series, and there wasn’t a lot of time between first stage and final stage and also between the climax and the end of the season. He’s probably been throwing through some fatigue but he’s giving everything he’s got. Even through all that, today, seven innings with one run allowed is pretty amazing.”

Senga gave up a home run to Shinnosuke Abe in the second inning on Saturday but not much else. From the third inning through the seventh, he allowed two hits, walked two and struck out four. He retired 11 straight batters at one point in that stretch.

Senga pitched with velocity, hitting 159 kph with his first pitch of the night, and flummoxed the Yomiuri batters with his array of pitches.

“Takuya told me we were going to use all my pitches to hold them down,” Senga said, referring to catcher Takuya Kai, who was also drafted as a developmental player in 2010. “So I just pitched and put my trust in Takuya.”

He was also aided by Yurisbel Gracial’s two-run homer in the second inning, which gave him the lead, and second baseman Taisei Makihara’s diving catch on a liner by Takumi Oshiro in the seventh.

“Makki saved me today,” said Senga, who earlier expressed his gratitude to Gracial. “I have to say thank you to him.”

Two hits and an error left Senga in a jam in the seventh with runners on second and third and two outs in a 3-1 game. Senga then leaned on his cutter, throwing four during a five-pitch at-bat against Shinnosuke Shigenobu. When the final one landed in Kai’s glove and the homeplate umpire called the strikeout, Senga showed some emotion with a fist pump.

Senga’s big night was the latest achievement in what’s been a strong run since the 2016 season. He has a 2.87 ERA in 633 1/3 regular-season innings from 2016-2019. He was 13-8 with a 2.79 ERA this season and set a career-high with an NPB-best 227 strikeouts.

Senga had an impressive showing for Samurai Japan during the 2017 World Baseball Classic and has been on the MLB radar for some time. While he’s expressed a desire to make the move, SoftBank has historically refused to post its players.

So for now, at least, the 26-year-old will continue to cause problems for NPB hitters.

He’s doing it on the biggest stage in NPB right now, having turned in another strong showing on Saturday in his third straight Game 1 start in the Japan Series. He’s only the third pitcher to start Game 1 of the series in three consecutive seasons.

“First of all, this is an incredible team to be able to make it for three straight seasons,” Senga said. “The only thing I was thinking of on the mound, however, was just giving our team a chance to win.”

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