Every athlete in every sport eventually declines with age. It’s just more noticeable in the greats. For the stars who have reached amazing heights, the fall from grace can be long and painful to watch — or as in the case of slugger Michihiro Ogasawara, sudden and confusing.
Every player close to the finish line still feels they can perform at a high level, but Father Time always wins out. Some manage to walk away before the decline is complete, while others have the decision made for them, callous as it may seem at the time when a franchise nudges a former great toward the door.
Then there are those for whom the rush of competition is too addictive of a drug. For them, the end is as ugly as it is inevitable. They see it rolling in like the tide but are left powerless to hold it back. For the Chunichi Dragons, the question has become which outcome will best describe the end of closer Hitoki Iwase’s career.
Iwase cut a bullpen session short after just 16 pitches last week, citing discomfort in his left arm, which he injured late last season. Iwase told reporters there was no reason to continue throwing in the bullpen, since it would just throw off his mechanics. He also said it wasn’t related to the elbow injury that cut his season short last year.
Even if that’s true, it doesn’t make things any better. Iwase is 40 years old, an age when many players find their skills more susceptible to the accumulation of minor ailments and natural decline. It takes more work for older players to stay in shape and even more effort for them to bounce back from the grind of the season on a daily basis.
Iwase has more saves than any closer in Japanese history with 402, but his skills have shown some signs of erosion. His pitches don’t have quite the same speed or bite they once did and the incredulity he use to elicit from frustrated hitters is too often present on the mound nowadays. Last season Iwase posted a career-worst 1.53 walks plus hits per innings pitch (his career WHIP is 1.12) and allowed 12 runs in 30⅔ innings.
Iwase also had a few flaws in 2013 but still managed to have a good season, 36 saves and a 1.26 WHIP in 55 appearances, but he’s been putting out far too many fires of his own making recently. Where once opposing fans could make a beeline for the exits if Iwase was coming in with a lead, the increased number of runners he’s allowing has added a layer of tension to his outings.
Pretty soon, the Dragons may need to move away from Iwase, who is the most prolific NPB closer in history sitting far ahead of Shingo Takatsu on the all-time saves list (Takatsu is second with 286), in the big innings. If his play slips further, it will be time to identify and anoint a successor, something the Dragons haven’t seem interested in doing.
It would be hard to transition away from a player like Iwase, who is essentially a local boy, hailing from Nishio, Aichi Prefecture, a little over an hour away from Nagoya by train. He famously converted the save in a combined perfect game — after Daisuke Yamai had gone eight innings — in the clinching game of the 2007 Japan Series, giving Chunichi its first title since 1954. Iwase also recorded his milestone 200th, 300th and 400th saves in a Dragons uniform.
Then again, the team doesn’t seem to mind letting players of varying effectiveness grow old in a Chunichi uniform. The Dragons could begin the season with as many as five players over 40 — and pitcher Kenshin Kawakami hits the big 4-0 in June.
Iwase has gotten old in baseball terms. If his body is starting to rack up injuries, that will only speed up the decline of the Chunichi great.
While the play of 42-year-old Dragons outfielder Kazuhiro Wada continues be an inspiration for Chunichi’s roving band of 40-somethings, Iwase may be closer to the end than either he or the Dragons, or the fans for that matter, care to admit.