A baseball season may be a marathon, but there’s something to be said for getting off to a fast start.
That’s what Hanshin Tigers pitcher Randy Messenger has done, and on Tuesday he received some of the early fruits of his labor.
Japanese baseball unveiled the season’s first batch of monthly MVPs (covering March and April) on Tuesday, with Messenger winning among Central League pitchers and Chunichi Dragons outfielder Yohei Oshima chosen among position players. Orix Buffaloes ace Chihiro Kaneko and infielder Takahiro Okada were honored in the Pacific League.
“It’s a great feeling,” Messenger told The Japan Times prior to Hanshin’s contest against the Yomiuri Giants on Tuesday night at Tokyo Dome. “It’s not like you get that opportunity very often. It’s thanks to my teammates. They always let me pitch with a lead. That makes pitching a lot easier. It’s a cool experience to have another one.”
Messenger won the award for the second time in his career, joining Tigers legend Randy Bass and pitcher Jason Standridge, his former teammate, as the only foreign Hanshin players to win twice.
“That’s one of the things you play the game for, to make sure your name is known when you’re gone from it,” Messenger said. “I’m still adding on to that. Hopefully I’ll add a couple more, so I’ll be the sole leader.”
Messenger, who started the season opener on March 31, was 4-0 with a 1.95 ERA over five appearances in March and April. He struck out 37 in 32 1/3 innings.
“Anytime you can get out to a good start it helps out,” Messenger said. “Because there is a time in the year when everybody starts pressing. If you’re struggling during that time, and you’re pressing, it’s going to make it a lot harder to control your emotions and control what you can do. Right now, it’s really nice to start off the way the team has started, and also personally.”
Oshima, a first-time winner hit .372 in 26 games for the Dragons over the same period. He finished with 42 hits, one home run and eight RBIs. He also stole five bases.
“He reminds me of an Ichiro-type hitter,” Messenger said. “He’s definitely a hard out. It’s impressive what he did. He had 40-plus hits. That’s impressive. I don’t care who you are, what kind of hitter you are, that’s impressive. He’s a good player. He’s great defensively, he steals bases and he sprays the ball all over the field.”
In the Pacific League, Kaneko won the monthly award for the seventh time, earning his first since September of 2014. Kaneko was 4-0 with a 1.70 ERA, a pair of complete games and 23 strikeouts in March and April. Okada, a two-time winner, hit .351 with seven home runs and 15 RBIs.
Messenger gave a lot of credit for the award to his teammates, especially with the help they’ve given him at the plate.
“In years past, I haven’t had the run support,” he said. “But this year, it’s awesome having the run support. It’s a different feeling. They’re scoring runs early. They’re pouring in runs earlier in the game, and it’s just making it a lot easier.”
The 35-year old Messenger can also credit some of the adjustments he’s made for his early season success. Messenger says he’s tried to relax more and slow things down on the mound.
He’s also tried to focus on pitching rather than just throwing. He took his cutter back to the drawing board during the offseason and also made other tweaks.
“I’ve cut a lot of miles-per-hour off of it, made it more of a slider instead of a cutter,” said Messenger, who is 4-0 with a 2.58 ERA in six starts overall this year. “There were times when I would throw my cutter too hard, and it’d just be like a BP fastball. When it’s just moving a little bit, it stays on the plate a lot longer and they’re able to hit it. That’s what I got in a lot of trouble doing in recent years, throwing it and leaving it up in the zone.
“Just the swings on it have been a lot worse swings than I was used to in the past. Used to be, they were just on it. Now, I’m getting the weak ground ball like you’re supposed too and swings and misses on it, which is nice. It was just an adjustment I had to make. If you want to stay around a long time, you always gotta make adjustments and be willing to make them.”
Messenger has been in the middle of the team’s early success and a reason the Tigers began the week in first place in the Central League. At the same time, the challenge of getting off to a good start is trying to keep it going.
“It’s just a good group of guys and everybody has come together,” Messenger said. “It just seems like we’re all on the same page with what we want to accomplish. The young guys are stepping up when they need to.
You just gotta take one game at a time, one series at a time. It’s such a long season, we haven’t even gotten to the hottest parts of the year yet. We just can’t overwork ourselves. We just gotta stay confident even if we have a bad outing or a couple bad games at the plate, we just gotta stay confident and stay ready to play.”