Nishinomiya, Hyogo Pref. - Shota Takeda stood at the center of a maelstrom during the sixth inning in Game 2 of the Japan Series. The Hanshin Tigers were rallying, and their fans, who in their home ballpark might be Japan’s loudest on a normal day, were practically roaring at the prospect of their team, which had a runner on second, turning a one-run deficit into a tie game or, even better, an outright lead.
Their screams reached Takeda on the mound at Koshien Stadium, the Tigers’ hallowed ground so full of history and ghosts of the past. The only postseason experience Takeda had to drawn upon was from the previous five innings on Sunday and a disastrous showing in the Pacific League Climax Series two seasons ago, and while he wasn’t alone on the field, he was the only one with the ball in his hands.
Through it all, the 21-year old Fukuoka Softbank Hawks pitcher kept his cool and made the pitches he needed to make in order to tame the Tigers and quiet well over 40,000 raucous Hanshin fans.
“The cheering by the Hanshin fans is intimidating,” Takeda said after the game. “I was overwhelmed. But I tried to channel my nervousness into happiness and it worked.”
The Takeda that guided the Hawks to a Game 2 victory isn’t the same one who wilted in his only other postseason appearance, as a rookie in 2012. So often these days we expect top-shelf young players to be great at everything right away and forget these things take time. Two seasons ago, Takeda wasn’t ready for this moment, on Sunday he conquered it.
“I think he has the courage,” Hawk’s manager Koji Akiyama said. “He showed that with a performance that was more than enough for us.”
Takeda has come a long way since walking off the field in the first stage of the 2012 Pacific League Climax Series against the Seibu Lions. He was a rookie then, lauded as “Kyushu’s Darvish” when he was drafted, and had put together a solid first season. He wasn’t Darvish-like by any stretch, but even Yu Darvish wasn’t “Yu Darvish” in the beginning.
Takeda was knocked around by Seibu and out of that game after giving up five runs — four earned — in 2⅓ innings. Afterward a few of the Lions mentioned his youth and inexperience.
The Tigers were talking about his skill, not his experience, on Sunday, after Takeda held them to one run on three hits over seven innings.
“I think he was aggressive,” said Central League RBI champion Mauro Gomez. “Like, first pitch, boom, strike, and then he started throwing curves. He’s good. He’s got good stuff. Very good fastball and a big curve. I take my hat off to him.”
Takeda has grown in the two seasons since Seibu. His talent manifested itself on the biggest stage in Japanese baseball on Sunday in a game that was of the utmost importance to his team. It was the kind of night Hawks fans envisioned when the team plucked him out of Miyazaki Nichidai High School with its first pick in the 2011 draft. So far, the early hype is still outpacing his actual performance, Takeda is 15-8 with a 2.35 ERA over 203⅓ innings in 35 career appearances, but he showed his promise during his Japan Series debut.
Given his youth and relative inexperience, Takeda was an interesting choice for the start at Koshien. Hawks lefty Kenji Otonari had been better recently, and Kenichi Nakata, another southpaw, was far more familiar with both the environment and the Tigers, having pitched in the Central League for the Chunichi Dragons from 2005 to 2013.
Still, Akiyama put his faith in Takeda and was rewarded.
“The cheering from the fans at Koshien is so intense, but he pitched his own game,” Akiyama said. “I tip my cap to him.”
While it’s important not to get too high after one strong performance, this was the type of experience that can help propel Takeda forward. The Hawks certainly have to hope so, since they might need him to deliver an encore later in the series.
“If I get another chance to pitch, I want to put up an even better result,” Takeda said.