Baseball / Japanese Baseball

Lions reliever Deunte Heath grateful to be back in NPB

by Jason Coskrey

Staff Writer

Deunte Heath followed a long and winding path to reach the final stage of the Pacific League Climax Series with the Seibu Lions.

“I’m blessed,” he told The Japan Times about landing with Seibu this season. “It’s an honor. I’m just taking it game by game.”

After things didn’t work out with the Hiroshima Carp after the 2015 season (he spent two seasons with the club), Heath played winter ball in Venezuela and had stints with two different teams in the Mexican League. He was in Toyama earlier this year, playing in the independent BC League, when he got the call the Lions were giving him another shot in NPB.

“Of course that was the ultimate goal, to get back to NPB, but I tried not to think about it too much,” Heath said at MetLife Dome this week. “I just tried to go out and do my job there (in Toyama) and let everything take it’s course.

“It was a lot of fun, both places. In Mexico, Laguna and Puebla, and also in the BC League with Toyama. I just try not to overthink it. It’s still the same game mentally for me as far as throwing strikes, getting outs, no matter where I’m at. I just try to keep the game simple no matter where I’m playing.”

He’s in Tokorozawa now, trying to help Seibu get past the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks and into the Japan Series for the first time since 2008.

Heath made 42 regular-season appearances after joining the Lions in May. He was 4-1 with nine holds and 13 saves. He pitched in a non-save situation in Game 2 against the Hawks on Thursday, retiring all three batters he faced in a 13-5 win.

The 32-year-old Atlanta native has shored up the back of the Seibu bullpen after sliding into the closer’s role for manager Hatsuhiko Tsuji’s team.

“It’s just being consistent, just throwing strike one and getting that first batter out,” Heath said.

“Just not trying to do too much. Just relaxing and throwing strikes and just competing.”

While Heath has helped in the bullpen, he was signed to pitch at the beginning of games, not the end.

“I actually came in as a starter and then things just kind of started happening and then it was closing out the games,” he said. “In my mind, I just come in whenever my name is called in the bullpen. Whether it’s the first, fifth, seventh, eighth or ninth.

“It was just all about what the team needed. I think that’s when (Brian) Wolfe had some problems with his arm, so I came in as a starter. Then he bounced back and the bullpen needed help and so I went to the pen and went from there.”

The PL champion Lions entered Sunday trailing the Hawks 3-2 in their series. Should Seibu manage to pick up two more wins, Heath’s old team, the Carp, will be waiting in the Japan Series. The Carp completed a sweep of the Yomiuri Giants in the Central League’s final stage on Friday.

The thought of possibly seeing Hiroshima again brought a smile to Heath’s face.

“I’ve been hearing that for a while,” Heath said with a chuckle. “Ever since I got here. Because I was fortunate enough to join the Lions when they were in first place and we’ve been there since then.

“It would be a great series. But we’ve got to take care of this one first.”