Jay Jackson likes being a relief pitcher. He also likes being a relief pitcher in Japan, which is convenient, since the 30-year-old is in the middle of his third season with the Hiroshima Carp.
Jackson has seen a lot during his time in NPB, and has come to understand the small differences between doing the job in Japan vs. in North America.
“Being a reliever here, you have to be able to read hitters,” Jackson told The Japan Times. “There’s only two types of hitters here, there’s the slap guys and then there are the power guys. You gotta read the hitters and see what kind of swings they’re taking off you and how they’ve been swinging all game. For me, being a reliever, you just gotta throw strikes.”
Even then, getting those important outs late in games can be a tricky endeavor in Japan thanks to the style of play.
“My opinion is, in NPB bullpens are so important,” Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles reliever Frank Herrmann said. “Just because of the style of the game, teams will play for one run all the time. A lot of times, games are coming down to your bullpen, whether you’re behind by a couple or ahead by a couple.”
Jackson has been there, having experienced both ups and downs out of the bullpen with the Carp, including his hand in 2016’s magical run to the pennant and also that season’s disappointing finish in the Japan Series.
So far this year, he’s made 33 appearances and headed into the All-Star break leading the Central League with 20 holds, trailing only the Orix Buffaloes’ Yoshinobu Yamamoto (22) among all NPB pitchers.
“It’s like a game of chess,” Jackson said of the late innings. “You’re just trying to get outs. You want to be aggressive and you want to work ahead, that’s the main thing. They’ve seen you, so you just try to make your pitches and just be confident in yourself. That’s the main thing, you gotta be confident.
“There’ll be games where you come into a big situation. You don’t want to be too amped up for it, because then you’re not hitting your spots like you’re supposed to, because you’ve got too much adrenaline or you’re kind of nervous about the situation, and you make a mistake and the game’s over.”
Since he usually pitches in the eighth inning, that’s a tightrope Jackson walks often as he tries to deliver the game to closer Shota Nakazaki.
“We’ve been doing it for the past three years,” Jackson said. “We’re both comfortable. Our bullpen for me, we’ve got one of the best bullpens in both leagues. We have a mix of everything that you can possibly imagine. We’ve got a mix of everything that we can throw at you in certain situations. Me and ‘Zaki just being back there, I feel like our guys have a lot of confidence in us and they trust us to get the job done.”
With his role more or less defined, Jackson’s routine generally plays out the same on game days.
First, there’s pregame practice and then a meal of udon — or ramen at Tokyo Dome, where he can’t get udon — and a nap before the game starts. Then he showers, stretches and watches the game until heading to the bullpen around the fifth inning.
“Normally, I’ll pitch in the eighth,” he said. “So whenever our guy goes out for the seventh, I’ll stretch and do a little weighted ball thing. Top eighth or bottom seventh, I’ll get ready, I’ll play catch, I’ll throw about 15-20 pitches and then go out on the field and see what happens.”
When asked who stands out to him among NPB relievers, Jackson cited two whose approach he’s tried to emulate.
“Sarfate, by far. Him, and Mathieson too,” he said, mentioning the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks’ Dennis Sarfate and the Yomiuri Giants’ Scott Mathieson. “Just the demeanor they have on the mound when they’re pitching. Especially Sarfate. You see him pitch, and he’s calm at all times. He knows what he has to do. He goes out there, he gets his job done. He’s confident and comfortable in every situation.
“You saw it in the Japan Series last year, he comes in throwing three innings in the last game and dominating. He’s not worried about anything, nothing fazes him. That’s from experience and knowing that with the work you’ve put in, you’re going to get the job done. That’s how I try to approach everything that I do now.”