Baseball / Japanese Baseball

Eagles win rights to coveted lefty Matsui

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

Tohoku Rakuten club president Yozo Tachibana had no choice but to take the last ticket from the lottery box, because the representatives from the other four teams had already chosen by the time his turn arrived.

In the end, however, his ticket was the only one that had the coveted stamp on it.

Five teams put themselves in the running for high school pitching phenom Yuki Matsui of Toko Gakuen, with the Golden Eagles winning the right to negotiate with him in the first round of the NPB draft on Thursday evening at a Tokyo hotel.

After Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters manager Hideki Kuriyama, Yokohama BayStars skipper Kiyoshi Nakahata, Fukuoka Softbank Hawks chairman Sadaharu Oh and the Chunichi Dragons’ newly-introduced player/manager Motonobu Tanishige drew from the lottery box, Tachibana timidly pulled out the only one left.

That turned out to be the golden ticket for this year’s Pacific League champions.

“I was so reluctant,” Tachibana said of being sent onto the podium. “I was really nervous out there.”

While the 42-year-old Tachibana managed only a modest smile when he found out his club had won, Rakuten skipper Senichi Hoshino broke into a broad grin from his seat at the club’s table.

“Our president has it,” Hoshino joked, adding that he didn’t take the responsibility to draw because he wanted to save his luck for the upcoming Japan Series against the Central League champion Yomiuri Giants. “It felt like I was dreaming (when Tachibana picked the right card). Our president was shaking.”

The excitement level shown by the Rakuten executives was understandable, because the Sendai-based club could lose its best hurler, Masahiro Tanaka, after this season to the major leagues. The club lost Hisashi Iwakuma, the ace before Tanaka, two years ago as well.

“We love him being so aggressive against batters,” said Hoshino, a former pitcher and emotional leader for the Eagles said of Matsui. “It was pretty natural a lot of clubs made bids for him. I believe that there were some others who seriously thought about pursuing him and decided not to do so. I think that possibly eight to nine teams could have gone for him.”

Hoshino compared Matsui with Tanaka and Takahiro Norimoto for his bull-fighter-type mentality.

“We are so thrilled that we’ll add a young man like him for our team, because we only have Tanaka and Norimoto. “We hope that he’ll be another presence for us. We’re absolutely looking forward to it.”

Matsui, who turns 18 years old next Wednesday, came into the spotlight during the 2012 National High School Championships, where he struck out 22 batters in his team’s first-round game. Although he doesn’t have a large build, standing at 174-cm, a devastating slider has been his most lethal weapon. The Yokohama native was the ace pitcher for Team Japan in the under-18 World Cup in Taiwan in August.

“I would like to be like Tanaka-san,” Matsui said in a TV interview before the draft.

Meanwhile, Daichi Osera, of Kyushu Kyoritsu University, was another highly sought-after pitcher in the draft.

The Tokyo Yakult Swallows, Hiroshima Carp and Hanshin Tigers competed for the right-hander, who has a compact take back like Boston Red Sox’s Koji Uehara but a fastball that touches 153 kph.

In an uncommon move, Hiroshima dispatched scout Kei Tamura to participate in the lottery, and he got the job done.

“I’m truly pleased,” said Tamura, who’s observed Osera in the past few years. “Because I’m the one who has watched him most. I believed in myself. I think he’s going to be a wonderful pitcher for us.”

Carp skipper Kenjiro Nomura said, “We believe that he ‘s going to live up to our expectations. We’ll use him as a starter because that’s what he’s been doing.”

JR East righty Kazumasa Yoshida was thought of as a player who could contribute right away in the pro ranks and might be pursued by a few clubs. But the Orix Buffaloes were the only team to make a bid and automatically obtained his negotiating rights.

“For me and for him, this is not our goal,” Orix manager Koji Moriwaki said. “This is our start. I’d say, let’s spend precious time together from now on.”

Unlike in the last few years, there weren’t many surprises during the draft.

If there was one, it was perhaps when the Seibu Lions selected Yuya Mori, who led Osaka Toin High School to the national championships in the spring and summer Koshien tourneys as catcher in 2012.

Mori is known for his exceptional offensive skills. His 170-cm frame is clearly too small for a catcher, but he hit .473 with five homers in four appearances in the Koshien championships.

When Mori’s name was called, a slight stir was raised among the fans that invited to the event.

The Fighters, who seemed to have always been blessed with luck in recent drafts, winning the rights to Yu Darvish, Sho Nakata and Yuki Saito (you could include Shohei Otani in that, too) in past seasons, but it ran out this year.

They lost three lotteries in the first round before finally settling on Ryo Watanabe, infielder for Tokai University Kofu High School.

“Unfortunately, we didn’t have the luck,” Fighters’ Kuriyama said of missing Matsui. “But I’d thought as long as (Matsui) would exceed somewhere in the 12 ball clubs, it was fine. I’m still hoping he’ll do well as a pro.”