HIROSHIMA – The Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks must’ve known something was off.
Hiroshima Carp shortstop Kosuke Tanaka, who had led off Game 6 of the Japan Series with a single, had taken off as Hawks starter Rick van den Hurk pitched to Ryosuke Kikuchi and was ruled to have safely stolen second base.
But there was no way that could be right, could it? Not with the way Hawks catcher Takuya Kai had been throwing out Carp runners all series. It was at least worth another look.
So manager Kimiyasu Kudo stepped out of the dugout, removed his hands from the pockets of his jacket and mimicked drawing a square — a signal he wanted the umps to take a look at the replay.
When they came back, it was as suspected. Tanaka was out, the latest in a line of Carp runners to fall victim to the “Kai Cannon.”
“Takuya throws everybody out,” Van den Hurk said. “That’s huge to have. He throws strikes to second base. That’s impressive and that helps a lot.”
The old adage “defense wins championships” is usually attributed to football, but Kai was the walking embodiment of it during this Japan Series, as he threw out runner after runner.
Kai was named Japan Series MVP after Saturday’s series-clinching 2-0 win in Game 6, more for his right shoulder than his bat. He hit just .143 during the series and, according to Nikkan Sports, was the first Japan Series MVP to finish without an RBI.
What the 25-year-old did was thwart all six stolen base attempts he faced against a Carp team that had stolen 95 bases during the regular season.
“It was a result of the pitchers’ control and their quickness,” Kai said during the team’s victory news conference that night. “The fielders were also wonderful today. It’s not something I could do alone.”
He also helped the SoftBank pitchers suppress a Carp offense that led the Central League with 721 runs. Only the Seibu Lions had more in NPB.
“They have an amazing lineup,” Kai said. “I couldn’t afford to lose my focus and had to go pitch-by-pitch. I was afraid if I made a poor decision it would lead to us losing.”
In Game 6 he terrorized the Carp in new ways, twice almost nailing a runner who wasn’t trying steal but had strayed a step too far off first base.
Kai tied the record for the most runners thrown out in one Japan Series, set in 1952, and set the mark for most consecutive runners thrown out. According to Nishinippon Shimbun, he was the first catcher to finish with a perfect mark after at least six attempts.
Accordingly, fans and media dubbed his powerful right arm the “Kai Cannon.”
“I don’t really think I’m that good, but I’m really happy,” Kai said.
Being aggressive on the bases had been part of the Carp’s plan all season and they brought that mentality into the Japan Series. Kai, however, was too overwhelming of a force to overcome.
“When they got on base, I felt like they might try to do something,” Kai said. “So I was prepared.”
Kai threw out at least one runner in five of the six games during the Japan Series. His strikes ended the ninth inning in Game 1 and the fifth inning in Game 4.
The Carp, didn’t fare any better against the Hawks’ other catcher, Hiroaki Takaya, becoming the third team to finish the Japan Series without a stolen base after going 0-for-8.
SoftBank’s pitchers have often sang Kai’s praises. Right-handed ace Kodai Senga swears by him and his ability to guide the team’s pitchers.
“He’s defensively so strong, and he calls a good game,” Van den Hurk said.
Kai, a native of Oita, came a long way to become Japan Series MVP. He was the Hawks’ sixth choice in the 2010 developmental draft. He spent the next few years working his way up the organizational ladder of a franchise bursting at the seams with talent.
Kai made his debut in 2014 and was the team’s regular catcher by 2017, playing in 103 games. He was a Best Nine selection that season and also won a Golden Glove. He played for Samurai Japan in the Asia Professional Baseball Championship that fall.
He’s extremely adept at quickly getting into a throwing position and his throws are powerful and accurate. Public broadcaster NHK timed one of his successful throws to second during the series at 1.8 seconds.
“I’ve thought that this is one of my good points, Kai said. “I thought it was something that would help me make a good impression during my ikusei (developmental) days. I’m happy I could produce these results on this stage.”
Van den Hurk, who said he’s working to improve his slide steps to better defend the running game, said Kai has provided an extra layer of security.
“With a guy like Takuya behind the plate, I’m allowed to be a little bit slower,” he said. “So that helps me out a lot.”
Kai himself gave a lot of credit to battery coach Kenji Yoshitsuru.
“Coach Yoshitsuru gave me a lot of advice,” Kai said. “He helped with my movement and told me when my timing wasn’t right and things like that.
“I was able to play with a lot of confidence because of that.”
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5