Baseball / Japanese Baseball

Tigers ace Messenger turned uncertainty into sure thing

by Jason Coskrey

Staff Writer

The Hanshin Tigers’ newest reliever stepped out of a plane and into the unknown in 2010. Waiting for him was a different style of the game he’d played all his life, not to mention the impending adjustments to a new country, new culture and new teammates.

Plus, he was in Japan on a one-year deal. So if it didn’t work out, he might’ve been doing it all over again somewhere else in 2011.

“I was excited,” Hanshin Tigers ace Randy Messenger told The Japan Times at Tokyo Dome on Saturday, some eight years later. “It was one of those where you want to prove yourself. I think I ended up trying to do too much instead of just staying within myself.”

Messenger finished that season with a 4.93 ERA over 80⅓ innings.

“It was an eye-opener, just the all-around baseball atmosphere here,” he said. “It’s a lot different than home.”

Despite a so-so start, Hanshin brought back Messenger as a starter in 2011, and the big righty from Reno, Nevada, has gone on to become one of the top foreign pitchers to ever play in Japan.

Now in his ninth season with Hanshin, Messenger is 85-70 with a 2.97 ERA over 1,360⅔ innings. He’s well within striking distance of 100 NPB wins and is already one of four foreign pitchers to reach 1,000 strikeouts, with 1,296. He has yet to finish a season with fewer than 143 innings pitched or an ERA higher than 3.20 since he began starting in 2011. His lowest WAR since 2014 was last season’s 4.3.

On Friday, Messenger made his fourth straight opening-day start, tossing seven innings of one-run ball in a win over the Yomiuri Giants.

Having been in Japan for nearly a decade, Messenger said the game has changed in some ways, and thinks the level is higher now. Some of that, he feels, is due to a new generation of young, hungry players getting their chance to shine.

“More young guys are being able to contribute,” Messenger said. “Before, it was only a select few young guys, because so many teams were loaded with veterans. Now that these young guys are coming up, they’re able to produce and they’re sticking.”

They’re also keeping a certain 36-year-old on his toes.

“I gotta keep working to stay on top of my game,” Messenger said. “Like I always say, there are always other pitchers out there trying to take my job. So me getting older, I gotta make sure I do my job and work harder to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

Messenger has been in Japan longer than other foreign players in NPB currently, with the exception of Seibu Lions pitcher Brian Wolfe, who is also in his ninth season.

He said for foreign pitchers especially, patience is one of the keys to making it in Japan. Especially when facing batters who with two strikes look to foul off pitches, and make the pitcher work, more than put the ball in play.

“It’s very frustrating, but good hitters, they reach base three out of 10 times,” Messenger said. “So the favor is always on our side. As long as you execute your pitch, have patience, you’ll get the guy out.”

Messenger has become a beloved figure among Tigers fans, though he gives the credit for that to his teammates.

“Obviously it wouldn’t be that way if I didn’t do my job,” he said. “I pay a lot of respect to my teammates. They put me in a lot of good situations. I just go out there and try to do my job.”

When he arrived in 2010, Messenger never envisioned having this type of career or longevity in Japan. Now, he doesn’t see playing out his career anywhere but in Japan or for any team other than Hanshin.

“I don’t wanna finish with anybody else,” Messenger said. “Being so close to finishing up my career here, being so close to so many records as a foreign starter over here, I want to make sure I finish that off and be on top of that list with all those wins and strikeouts. Innings is obviously a little crazy because back in the day those guys were throwing 350 innings a season.

“Other than that, there are so many records I’m really close to being able to break, I want to be able to do that in a Tigers uniform.”

This season, Messenger hopes to reach 16 wins and 200 innings. But he’ll trade both those goals for just helping to deliver the Tigers’ first Central League pennant since 2005.

“I have my personal goals set, but if we end up winning the pennant, all my personal goals will fall into place,” he said. “Because obviously I did my job.”

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