Baseball / Japanese Baseball

Patience runs out for struggling ace Wakui

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

Thirty-eight pitches. That’s the number Hideaki Wakui of the Seibu Lions tossed in Tuesday night’s game against the Chiba Lotte Marines.

You may see him throw as many as that in the reminder of the season. But probably not as a starter.

Wakui was handed a harsh lesson by his team during the game. Skipper Hisanobu Watanabe quickly pulled the right-hander off the mound after he got the first out of the second inning.

Wakui actually allowed just one hit, but was perhaps bothered by the nasty, blowing wind at QVC Marine Field and walked three batters, two of whom were leading off the first and second innings. He allowed three runs (two earned).

“As we’re going to play more important games down the stretch in the season, we can’t rely on him any more,” Watanabe said after his team’s 4-0 loss. “I didn’t think that he could bounce back from there today.”

The game was a kind of final exam for Wakui, who has struggled since his last win as a starter on April 18 and been back and forth between the starting rotation, the bullpen and the minors. After he gave up five runs but was responsible for only one of them against the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks on August 13, he received one more shot from Watanabe.

But obviously, Wakui didn’t pass the test.

“We’ve kept using him because we’ve had such high expectations for this guy,” Watanabe said, gradually raising his voice. “But he’s failed us. He’s not good enough to pitch at this level. We’ve been patient with him, but no more. He’s not a pitcher that we can depend upon.”

The Lions and Wakui tried some different things that he hadn’t done all year before Tuesday’s game. For instance, Wakui pitched in the bullpen on the previous day and had Takanori Hoshi as his catcher instead of Ginjiro Sumitani.

At the end of the day, however, it didn’t work out for the 27-year-old, who was on the Japan national team for the 2009 and 2013 World Baseball Classics.

Wakui has plenty of supporters, such as Seibu’s veteran backup catcher Tatsuyuki Uemoto, who had just been called up from the minors.

“I want to assist him any way I can,” Uemoto, 32, said before Tuesday’s game. “I watched the video of his last start at Seibu Dome, and I noticed that he was pitching so desperately. It’s not good. Now I’m here near him, so hopefully I can help him out.”

Marines slugger Craig Brazell, who played for the Lions in 2008, protected Wakui by saying the righty is still “a good pitcher.”

“Wakui’s a good pitcher,” the American said. “He knows how to pitch, he knows how to pitch in a big game. He’s been having a little bit of a down time. He’s a type of a guy that can come out of it because, after spending a year with Wakui, he was just unbelievable in 2008. People say he’s not as good as he was, but I think he is good.”

Wakui was the Pacific League’s winningest pitcher in 2007 and 2009, and he was awarded the Sawamura Award in 2009. He also helped Seibu win the Japan Series championship in 2008. His downfall began in 2011 (loose cartilage was found in his right elbow but he decided to not have surgery). Since then, he’s gone 15-23 (he was 57-35 between 2007 and 2010).

Brazell, who added he still has a good friendship with Wakui, insisted that numbers can sometimes deceive because there are players who do well but don’t have great statistics.

But it’s a stretch to apply that logic to Wakui. Both his performance and numbers (5-6, 4.84 ERA) have been poor this year.

Like Uemoto and Brazell, pitching coach Tadashi Sugimoto had been supportive of Wakui. He said after Wakui’s previous outing that the pitcher was throwing pitches that were good enough to hold opponents.

But after Tuesday night, Sugimoto’s stance was the same as Watanabe.

The difference between Sugimoto and Watanabe was, though, that Sugimoto didn’t speak as angrily as his manager.

Asked by the reporters if Wakui’s situation had become even more difficult after Tuesday’s game, Sugimoto quickly responded, “No, it didn’t, because there will be no more chances (for Wakui as a starter).”

“I don’t think he can do that any more,” the 54-year-old continued. “We’re going to have him pitch as a reliever. He’s not failed as a reliever. Hopefully, he’ll get better a little bit . . .”

Once one of the best pitchers in the NPB, Wakui is now facing the most difficult time of his professional career.