On a somewhat muggy Friday night in Yokohama, Masanori Ishikawa strode to the center of the diamond at Yokohama Stadium, bent down and bounced the rosin bag around in his hand a few times — seemingly every pitch later that night was accompanied by a puff of white — and proceeded to make his 20th start of the season for the Tokyo Yakult Swallows.
Ishikawa is nothing if not reliable on that front. He’s taken the mound at least 20 times for 13 straight years, dating back to his rookie season in 2002. He’s one of the few constants on a pitching staff that’s been overrun by injuries the last few years.
Ishikawa has usually won more than lost, but has had a tough time the last two years. He got the decision against the BayStars Friday to move back over .500 at 8-7 this season, which he hopes to build upon.
“I’m the oldest guy, so I want to show leadership with my record,” the 34-year-old told The Japan Times in the Yakult clubhouse Thursday afternoon. “It hasn’t exactly gone as well as I’d hoped. But I want to give advice to the younger players. I talk about my experience, how to break out of slumps, the pitching checkpoints they need to hit, and so on, from my point of view.”
That’s what Shingo Takatsu, a former star closer and now a member of Yakult manager Junji Ogawa’s staff, did for Ishikawa. Now the veteran is paying it forward.
He tries to lead by example. Standing just 167 cm and with a fit but small 76-kg frame, the lefty doesn’t cut the most imposing figure on the mound. He stands as tall as other star pitchers once he gets going, using control and guile to his advantage.
Ishikawa can’t overpower hitters physically, but brings a smart and gritty approach to the mound that he’s used to carve out a nice career for himself to this point. His teammates have noticed through the years, and he’s looked up to by some of the younger Swallows and well-respected among the veterans.
“Masa is undoubtedly the leader of the pack,” Swallows reliever Tony Barnette wrote in an email. “He leads by example and dedicates himself to be 100 percent ready for his next game. His work ethic rubs off on everyone around him. He’s the same guy today as he was when I walked into the clubhouse for the first time five years ago.
“He’s confident in who he is and doesn’t try to be something he isn’t, which in my opinion, is a trait for success that can’t be taught and is harder to achieve than most give credit to.”
Ishikawa’s resolve was tested earlier this year — it took over a month to notch his first win — but he’s slowly began to turn things around, having gone a respectable 8-4 since May 7. He’s hopeful the Swallows can do the same.
“There aren’t many games left, but we at least want to reach the top three and make the Climax Series,” Ishikawa said. “Now we’re in last place, like last year, and way below .500. To get in the top three, we want to win as much as possible. Myself, I want to get to at least double digits and finish with a winning record.”
Ishikawa was a regular at Jingu Stadium even before joining the Swallows. In college, he pitched for nearby Aoyama Gakuin University in the Tohto University Baseball League. On many summer afternoons the league plays in the Swallows’ ballpark before giving way to the NPB clubs at night. “In college, Jingu was our home stadium and I always felt close to the Swallows and hoped to join the Swallows some day,” Ishikawa said.
While most of Ishikawa’s life has been spent playing baseball at Jingu, he got his start back home in Akita, where he grew up rooting for the Yomiuri Giants, the Swallows’ bitter crosstown rivals. “In Akita, many of the games on TV were Giants games,” he explained. “I loved the Giants players.”
During college he says his allegiance was half-Giants, half-Swallows. “I loved the Swallows more later because I liked Furuta,” he added, referring to Atsuya Furuta, Yakult’s legendary bespectacled catcher who in the final two years of his career, in 2006 and 2007, led the team as player-manager.
Ishikawa spent his prep years pitching for Akita Shogyo High School. In 1997, he helped lead the team to the National High School Baseball Championship for the first time in 17 years. Ishikawa threw a complete game to guide the team past Shimane’s Hamada High School, led by future NPB star and current Chicago Cubs pitcher Tsuyoshi Wada, in the first round. He later went the distance in a losing effort against Okinawa’s Urasoe Shogyo in the second round.
“Playing at Koshien was a turning point for me,” Ishikawa said. “You want to reach a higher level after playing at Koshien. It was great to experience the level of baseball across the nation.”
Because Ishikawa’s team went out early, he didn’t face an overwhelming workload during the tournament.
The issue of pitcher usage has burst into the forefront in recent years, particularly in the spring of 2013, when Tomohiro Anraku from Ehime’s Saibi High School threw 772 pitches over nine days at the National High School Baseball Invitational Tournament. That ignited a debate, which spread beyond Japan’s borders, about what was the right way to protect pitchers’ arms.
“Many Japanese people have taken it for granted that a pitcher throws as many pitches as he can at Koshien,” Ishikawa said. “Now, it’s being criticized in the U.S. To avoid injuries it’s something we have to think about. It’s sad to watch young pitchers get damaged because of injuries.
“In Japan, many of the teams have only one ace, and he has to pitch almost every game. It’s the Japanese way to develop one ace, but I feel they should have as many ace pitchers as possible.”
Even after 352 career games — 129 of them wins — Ishikawa still gets a little nervous before he takes the mound. “I don’t think you can pitch well if you’re too relaxed,” he said.
Ishikawa wants to pitch well enough to remain at Jingu for years to come. The Swallows stalwart still feels he can continue to get better, even in his 13th season and beyond.
“He’s everything you want a baseball player to be, on and off the field,” Barnette said. “He doesn’t take a day off. When he walks through the doors in the morning, you don’t expect him to go home until the work is done.
“That can be said about most players who play at the top level, but his secret is he makes it look effortless. For a guy who is not physically imposing, he’s out worked and outsmarted his competition the entire way.”