Baseball / Japanese Baseball | NPB NOTEBOOK

BayStars closer Yasuaki Yamasaki embraces pressure of must-win games

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

The BayStars fans at Yokohama Stadium know what to expect when the team enters the bottom of the ninth inning with a small lead.

It’s Yasuaki time.

When Yokohama closer Yasuaki Yamasaki comes out of the bullpen and heads to the mound, it is one of the moments when the stadium becomes electrified. Fans jump up and down loudly chanting “Ya-su-a-ki!”

But in Thursday’s Game 5 of the Japan Series, they might have been caught a little off-guarded because the right-hander’s walk-up song, “Kernkraft 400,” was played during the eighth inning.

After all, BayStars skipper Alex Ramirez made a “postseason move,” something perhaps he wouldn’t have done in the regular season. The Venezuelan sent Yamasaki to the hill to relieve Spencer Patton with runners on first and second with two outs and the Central League club clinging to a 5-4 lead.

“Of course, I trust Patton in that situation to finish the inning,” Ramirez said after the game at jam-packed Yokohama Stadium. “It was just a situation where I needed to bring Yamasaki into the game. One hundred percent, no doubt I wanted to bring him in that situation.”

Yamasaki did not look as sharp as he is when he is in top form, and in fact, he gave three hits to the Hawks and allowed them to create a bases-loaded situation before he managed to get the final out in the ninth.

Ramirez did not tell Yamasaki that he would be sent to the mound earlier than normal before the game because it could put additional pressure on the third-year pro.

Ramirez added that he “started getting (Yamasaki) ready in the eighth inning.”

During his team’s practice at Yafuoku Dome on Friday, the manager revealed that he would use Yamasaki for more than one inning for remainder of the series if he needs to.

It might have been a little difficult for Yamasaki to get himself prepared for the unusual situation in Game 5. But he said that he tried to at least be ready mentally.

“I consider that baseball is a mental game,” the 2015 CL Rookie of the Year said after Thursday’s game. “So in order for me to have the best performance I could have, I tried to not waste any second (in the bullpen).”

Yamasaki, 25, added that it is important to not be weak-kneed no matter who you are facing.

The Tokyo native said that he hasn’t seen much information about the BayStars’ last Japan Series-winning run in 1998. But he hopes to possess a positive mindset if he’s potentially on the mound in Games 6 and 7, with a shot at capturing another title as his motivation.

“I’m really thankful to be in this situation,” said Yamasaki, a career 96-save pitcher. “We are going to have to play at the away site from this point on, but I would like to do my best to help our team win, feeling the joy of me potentially becoming the pitcher on the mound.”

Yamasaki was shaky at the beginning of the season, but managed to post 26 saves.

You never know what will happen

In Japan Series history, there have been 43 teams that went ahead 3-2 in the series (including ties) and 32 of them went on to capture the title. So the Hawks, who now lead this year’s series 3-2 against the BayStars, are in a good spot, according to past data.

But according to the Tokyo Shimbun, the Hawks (when they were called the Nankai Hawks) returned home with a 3-2 lead in 1955 twice and failed to win the title as they fell to the Yomiuri Giants back to back in the final two games.

In 2011, the Hawks were in the same situation and defeated the Chunichi Dragons in the decisive seventh game at home to win the championship banner.

Let whoever is available throw

The Hawks and BayStars only have up to two games left in the Japan Series. So both teams are expected to send their pitchers into the game without hesitation, depending on the situation.

SoftBank pitching coach Yoshinori Sato said that the Hawks would have their starting pitchers, including Shota Takeda and Tsuyoshi Wada, wait in the bullpen for Game 6 and the potential seventh game.

“We have to think about how many pitchers we should put on the roster,” Sato said. “But I think that it’s better for us to have whoever is available because we don’t have any more games (after the series).”

Sato added that Takeda and Wada threw in Games 3 and 4 as starting pitchers, but neither pitched over five innings, so they “should be just fine.”