Hawks' Pedraza found relief in Japan

by Wayne Graczyk

You wonder why he never made it to the majors. Talking here about Fukuoka Daiei Hawks relief ace Rod Pedraza, the best closer in the Pacific League if not all of Japanese baseball, and one big reason the Hawks have won the PL pennant each of the two years Pedraza has been their game-ender.

The 29-year-old Texas native joined the Hawks in late April of 1999, after the Daiei organization had said it might go that whole year without foreign players because of a budget crunch. But Fukuoka took a chance on the virtually unknown hurler whose highest level of pro experience in North America consisted of 13 games in Triple-A at Colorado Springs, spread over the 1994 and 1996 seasons.

When the Hawks hooked him last year, his status was Double-A at Tulsa in the Texas Rangers organization and, looking at his minor league record, it does not appear Daiei offered him a contract for his game-saving ability. Through eight seasons (1991-1998), playing for farm teams of the Montreal Expos, Colorado Rockies and Rangers, Pedraza had compiled a record of 65-40 with an earned run average of 3.82 and — get this — no saves.

The guy had been a starter the whole time, with his best season 1994 at New Haven, the AA franchise of the Rockies. He racked up a 13-3 mark and a 3.24 ERA, and relief pitching was apparently the furthest thing from his mind, or the thoughts of his managers and pitching coaches.

In spite of that, he has become a great reliever in Japan, and Hawks manager Sadaharu Oh must have had extra sensory perception when he assigned Pedraza to the stopper’s role a year and a half ago. The guy somehow managed to make the conversion from starter to finisher so quickly and so successfully, while at the same time adapting to the unpredictable world foreigners face in Japanese baseball.

Though he arrived after the 1999 season had already begun, Pedraza established himself here so fast, he was named to the Pacific League All-Star team after winning the Player of the Month prize for June, and he ended the year with a 3-1 record, 27 saves and a stingy 1.98 ERA in 48 appearances.

He became the Hawks’ closer quite by accident. After starting two farm team games, Pedraza was promoted to the Daiei varsity. But before he could get into the starting rotation, he was inserted into a game in the eighth inning when then-closer Masao Fujii was hit with a line drive.

Relievin’ Rod picked up a save, and Oh put him out there again with the game on the line a few nights later. He saved another and his days as a starter were over.

For the 2000 season, according to Baseball Magazine, Pedraza’s estimated salary was 60 million yen (about $570,000), so he’s got to be a great bargain for the Hawks (considering the average salary for players in Japan is more than $1 million), as he posted a 3-4 mark, an excellent 2.15 ERA and 35 saves in 51 games to earn Fireman of the Year honors.

In both 1999 and 2000, Pedraza was the guy on the mound when the final outs were recorded to clinch the Hawks their only two pennants since going to Fukuoka, and he was on the hill when Daiei beat the Chunichi Dragons in the deciding Game 5 of last year’s Japan Series. For his pitching repertoire, Rod throws a straight fastball, a slider, sinker and change-up; no forkball, splitter or screwball. Asked what is his “out pitch,” he replied it depends on the hitter and the day.

“My slider might be working well one day but, the next day in the same situation pitching to the same batter, I might have more confidence in the sinker,” he said prior to Game 2 of this year’s Japan Series matchup with the Tokyo Giants at Tokyo Dome. Speaking of which, Pedraza insists he’s learned to cope with the pressure necessarily experienced by a ball club’s closer, especially in a do-or-die situation such as the Japan Series and against a hard-hitting team such as Yomiuri.

He said, “They’ve got a great lineup, but I just have the confidence that, if I go out there and pitch like I know I can, I’ll be OK.” But does he ever worry he’ll have an off-day and blow a save chance? “You always worry some,” he said, generally referring to all relief aces and athletes in other sports such as hockey goalies and football placekickers on whom the pressure of a win-or-lose situation is placed. “But I’m not afraid. If you’re afraid, then get a dog.”

Pedraza is looking forward this week to returning to his home in Cuero, Texas, an hour-and-a-half drive from the state capital of Austin. “I’ve been here since January,” he said in referring to the long Japanese season that starts with a Feb. 1 breaking of spring camp.

He’ll be doing some fishing and hunting, filling up on his favorite Tex-Mex cuisine, then getting ready for a third season in Japan.

As for why he never made it to the majors, he had reconstructive shoulder surgery and missed the entire 1995 season due to injury but then bounced back to go 7-3 with a 2.95 ERA at AA New Haven in 1996, so the chance was there.

Perhaps the answer is simply “fate.” His destiny was not to be a starter in North America, but a star reliever in Japan. Like fellow pitchers Eddie Gaillard (this season’s Central League Fireman of the Year) and Mel Bunch (the CL leader this season with 14 victories) of the Chunichi Dragons, Pedraza “found his niche” here with a seemingly natural talent for getting out Japanese hitters.

He won’t turn 30 years old until Dec. 28, so he’s got a couple of seasons to go and could very well turn out to be the best career foreign reliever ever to toe the rubber in Japan.

Daiei bullpen coach Yoshiharu “Yosh” Wakana says Pedraza is “sama-sama” (everything) to the team, and it will be interesting to see how the American stacks up in the Pacific League Most Valuable Player balloting against Japanese teammates Nobuhiko Matsunaka and Hiroki Kokubo.