‘Ma-kun’ has left Saito behind in rise to top


The look on Masahiro Tanaka’s face after his victory over the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters Saturday said it all.

The Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles pitcher had just put the finishing touches on a complete-game victory, but the look on his face was one of pure disgust.

As the fans erupted and his teammates celebrated, Tanaka stewed, upset over allowing a run in the ninth inning. As happy as he was about the win, that alone wasn’t enough.

‘Ma-kun’ was thinking shutout. That’s the standard he’s set for himself this year. That’s the drive which has made him perhaps the best pitcher in Japan.

Hopefully the Fighters’ Yuki Saito, the other half of the most hyped pitching matchup of the year, was watching. In 2006, Saito struck out Tanaka on Koshien Stadium’s dirt infield to end the final game of the National High School Baseball Championship and clinch the title for his team.

On Sunday, the tables were turned. This time it was Tanaka receiving the platitudes after a fantastic performance. Where Saito allowed four runs in eight innings, Tanaka allowed just one in a complete-game victory.

“I have to admit that this is the difference four years makes,” Saito told Kyodo News. “I now know the value of having to work hard to close the gap between us in baseball.”

The ‘Handkerchief Prince’ is just one of many trying to close the gap.

Tanaka is on another level this season, operating at a pace few can compete with.

In a way, the hype surrounding Saturday’s matchup of Tanaka and Saito was a bit unfair to both. Saito, just coming out of college, may well turn out to be a fine pitcher one day, but he isn’t in the same league as Tanaka yet.

Tanaka, having toiled in the shadow of Fighters ace Yu Darvish all year, deserved the spotlight and went out and grabbed it.

Tanaka’s play this season has turned the chase for the Sawamura Award into a two-horse race between Darvish and himself with just a few weeks left.

Through 22 starts, Tanaka is 15-4 with a 1.28 ERA, 10 complete games, three shutouts and 195 strikeouts. Darvish is 16-5 with a 1.47 ERA, nine complete games, four shutouts and 225 strikeouts.

Darvish has 22 quality starts to Tanaka’s 21 and both pitchers have an 0.83 WHIP.

In terms of fielding independent pitching, a measurement which focuses solely on things a pitcher can control, Darvish again has the advantage, 1.68 to 2.06.

While Darvish currently has a slight edge in the race for the Sawamura, there’s no discounting Tanaka’s play.

He’s broken out of the shadow of fellow Eagles hurler Hisashi Iwakuma and become one of the truly elite pitchers in Japan this season.

Saturday afternoon was billed as a rematch but in actuality, that couldn’t have been further from the truth. Tanaka and Saito once walked same path, but they’ve long since parted ways.

Tanaka is no longer chasing Saito. In their years apart, Ma-kun has taken the lead and, outside of Darvish, there might not be anyone who can keep up with him at the moment.