SAPPORO – That’s what you call dominance.
Shohei Otani, the baby-faced assassin of the Japan national team, was the king of the mound against South Korea in Sunday’s tournament opener at the inaugural Premier 12 at Sapporo Dome.
The 21-year-old right-hander blanked the Koreans, fanning 10 on 91 pitches in six innings of work, in a 5-0 win.
The Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters hurler was a little inconsistent in Japan’s warm-up game against Puerto Rico, in which he gave up two runs in two innings as a reliever. But with his performance on Sunday, Otani shook off the doubters.
Otani wowed the 28,000-plus fans at the stadium with his signature fastball, which on the night hit as fast as 161 kph. But he also tamed the opponents with his devastating forkball, which was just as quick as an average pitcher’s fastball.
“I believe that he was a little nervous going in, but Otani was just as great as advertised,” Japan skipper Hiroki Kokubo said after Sunday’s contest. “And it made it easier for our hitters to do their jobs.”
Hayato Sakamoto agreed with his manager. The Yomiuri Giants shortstop said Otani’s pitching tempo gave him positive momentum stepping up to the plate.
“Our battery was proceeding with a good tempo and it helped us score those runs,” Sakamoto said. “I was able to hit a homer, too.”
Catcher Motohiro Shima, who is not usually pleased to see Otani because he plays for the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, one of the Fighters’ rivals in the Pacific League, said that catching his pitches reconfirmed what a great pitcher he is.
“He’s got a real good fastball. He doesn’t need to be perfectly accurate with the pitch,” Shima said. “But when his forkball came lower, they were really good, too. It was actually better than I’d expected.”
South Korea skipper Kim In-sik admitted that his hitters were dazzled by Otani’s pitching.
“(Otani)’s got a great fastball for sure,” the 68-year-old manager said. “But not just that, his pitches would come in and out of the strike zone (with his breaking balls) and it fooled our hitters.”
Otani said that he tried to go full throttle from the start of the game, knowing that there would be other good pitchers behind him in the bullpen. He didn’t necessarily feel that he was in top form, but the team’s analysis of the opponents helped him.
“It wasn’t like I was feeling really good out there,” Otani said. “But the data that I was given helped me. So I appreciate what our data staff did.”
South Korea did have chances to score off Otani. In the fifth inning, Otani allowed runners to second and first with no outs. But he retired the side giving up zero runs by striking out the next three hitters.
“I allowed a hit that wasn’t perfectly hit (by Park Byung-ho), and it kind of made me feel uneasy,” Otani said. “But I cleared my mind and tried to just strike out the other hitters. And it worked.”
Objectively speaking, Otani’s familiarity with pitching on the mound at Sapporo Dome, surrounded by his home fans, was a big advantage for the Fighters pitcher.
Kokubo revealed that he designated Otani to start in the Premier 12 opening game sometime between the Climax Series playoff series and Japan Series, and his decision never wavered.
“The biggest reason was that the venue was Sapporo Dome, where (Otani)’s used to pitching,” Kokubo said. “Plus, looking at his records this year, we thought that anyone could understand why he would be named as the starting pitcher for the Japan-South Korea game in the Premier 12 opener.”
But down the road, Otani will perhaps be tested as Sapporo Dome will host no more games during the Premier 12, and he may have to play in unfamiliar surroundings in Taiwan.
“We’ll just have to do our best in every game,” said Otani, who tied for the PL’s winningest pitcher’s title with 15 and led the PL with a 2.24 ERA in the 2015 NPB season.
“I would certainly like to contribute to our team in my next outing, and even when I’m not pitching, I want to support the team. I’m not thinking about anything other than the championship. So it was great for us to get off to a good start.”
If Japan advances, Otani may start in the quarterfinal round on Nov. 16 in Taiwan.
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