Baseball / Japanese Baseball

Otani dazzles in likely last start before heading to majors

by Jason Coskrey

Staff Writer

The real Shohei Otani made his first appearance of the season on the last day of baseball at Sapporo Dome this year. It may have also been his final time on an NPB mound.

Five years after he first set hearts aflutter on Japan’s northernmost island, and nearly at the end of a season during which he was hindered by nagging injuries, Otani made his first two-way start of 2017, striking out 10 in a two-hit shutout while also batting fourth in a 3-0 victory over the Orix Buffaloes in the Fighters’ home finale on Wednesday night at Sapporo Dome.

“I became a little tired, but it felt good to be able to go the distance,” Otani said.

Nippon Ham outfielder Taishi Ota drove in three runs with a bases-clearing double in the fourth inning to give the Fighters a 3-0 lead.

“I was just thinking about getting a good pitch to hit and putting a solid swing on it,” Ota said.

The three runs ended up being more than enough for Otani.

“I wasn’t aiming for it (the shutout), I was just trying to take it one inning at a time,” he said.

The Fighters’ ace pitcher and designated hitter was making what most expect to be his last start in Japan before heading to the majors this winter. Some major league teams took one final look on Wednesday, with scouts from 11 clubs in attendance at Sapporo Dome.

Otani (3-2) put on a show for them with a slider that at times looked absolutely devastating.

“I felt like they were going after my fastball, so that’s why my slider worked so well,” he said.

He breezed through the early innings on the mound, striking out seven of the first 12 Buffaloes he faced. He allowed his first hit in the fifth, when Chris Marrero led off with a single and then walked Hiroyuki Nakajima.

Otani retired the next three batters to end the frame. He allowed another hit and walked another batter in the sixth, but again escaped unscathed.

His control faltered slightly in the latter stages of his outing, but he still had more than enough to put away the Buffaloes. Otani threw 124 pitches and ended up walking five batters. He hit 160 kph (99.4 mph) on the stadium gun seven times, topping out at 162 (101).

“He throws hard,” Marrero said. “He also has a good breaking ball. I think he’s going to do well in the States.”

Otani finished 1-for-4 at the plate out of the fourth spot in the order. “I didn’t really change anything while hitting in the cleanup spot,” Otani said. “I was able to go out there and do what I normally do.”

It was his first time to hit cleanup in a game in which he was also the starting pitcher.

“I’d thought about it for a while,” manager Hideki Kuriyama said. “I had a lot of visions of how we would use him, but I was a little hesitant today.

“I actually made up my mind last night, but I wouldn’t have let him hit had I seen any little change.”

Orix’s Chihiro Kaneko threw all eight innings for his team, allowing three runs on nine hits and striking out seven.

The Buffaloes have three games remaining on their schedule.

“We want to play our type of baseball and take some momentum into next season,” Orix’s Takahiro Okada said.

The Fighters have two games left, the first of those coming Thursday night against the Seibu Lions in Tokorozawa.

Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report

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