It was a record that was bound to fall to the right man in the right circumstances, and on Sunday the mark for career games pitched in Nippon Professional Baseball was eclipsed by Chunichi Dragons lefty Hitoki Iwase, Japan’s all-time saves leader.
The previous mark was held by Hankyu Braves ace and Hall of Famer Tetsuya Yoneda, who not only pitched in 949 games but started a record 626 times and won 350 games. In his career, Iwase has been asked to start just once — a byproduct of specialization that made Yoneda’s mark vulnerable to be broken by the most durable of relievers.
Before tying Yoneda, Iwase this season passed another Hall of Famer, lefty Masaichi Kaneda, whose 400 wins are most in NPB history.
“The primary feeling I have is whether it’s OK or not for me to be No. 1,” Iwase said. “You can’t compare me to Mr. Yoneda or Mr. Kaneda.”
There have long been specialty relievers in Japanese pro ball — even when Kaneda turned pro in 1950. But their use and prominence has evolved over the years and Iwase, who starred in relief from the start, is now the benchmark of success by which every closer is measured.
As a 24-year-old rookie in 1999, the days when ace pitchers like Yoneda and Kaneda would appear in late-inning relief between starts was long gone. In the 1980s and 1990s, starters were given plenty of rest but in turn were asked to rack up punishing pitch counts as long as they were effective.
By the time Iwase turned pro, even ace pitchers were no longer expected to complete most of their starts and the role of the closer was being narrowed to one-inning saves.
His first manager, Senichi Hoshino, built a deep bullpen to get games to South Korean closer Sun Dong-yol. Iwase, Hoshino’s second draft pick in 1988, became a key part of that plan, quickly taking on high-leverage, late-inning situations.
“I doubt if I once said I would use him as a starter,” Hoshino said. “With his stuff, I thought he would be effective as a setup man or a closer.”
Iwase brought a nasty slider that could be nearly untouchable, was tough as nails and worked extensively every offseason to increase his strength and flexibility.
“In today’s game, nobody is going to win 30 or 40 games a year,” said Hoshino, now an executive with the Pacific League’s Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles. “He has rarely pitched when in a losing effort. He was exclusively in there to hold on to the lead. That’s a lot of pressure. He’s really a tough man.”
In middle relief in his first three seasons, Iwase went 28-10 with two saves. The Dragons employed a few solid closers before Iwase closed part of the 2004 season under rookie manager Hiromitsu Ochiai. From that point on, he was the model of consistency.
Prior to Iwase and his older contemporaries in the closer role, Shingo Takatsu and Kazuhiro Sasaki, star Japanese relievers tended to flame out after a few seasons of high-volume use. But Iwase pushed the bar higher than anyone, pitching in 50-plus games in each of his first 15 seasons as a pro.
From 2005, when he entered the season as Chunichi’s closer, he saved 40-plus games five times as the Dragons began rolling through the most successful period in franchise history.
The high point of that might have been Game 5 of the 2007 Japan Series. Iwase entered the ninth inning of a 1-0 game after starter Daisuke Yamai had thrown eight perfect innings. A 1-2-3 ninth at home sealed Chunichi’s first Japan Series championship since 1954.
“Stress has been a constant companion,” Iwase said. “I don’t feel a sense of relief until the season is over.”
Iwase was finally slowed by an elbow injury in 2014 and failed to pitch in a single first-team game in 2015. Iwase pitched in 15 games last year but was largely ineffective.
This year, however, he has appeared in 46 games, earning 25 holds in middle relief in addition to his two saves. He was named the Central League’s pitcher of the month for June.
“You don’t do what he’s done without great physical and mental strength,” Dragons manager Shigekazu Mori said.
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