For Texas Rangers pitcher Chris Martin, being back in Japan is a homecoming of sorts.
Martin played for the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters during his two years in NPB, but there is still some nostalgia in suiting up for the MLB side at Tokyo Dome for the Japan All-Star Series this week.
While the Fighters are based in Sapporo, the club plays several games at Tokyo Dome (the franchise was based in Tokyo from 1948-2003) each season.
“It’s crazy, I dodged this place a lot,” Martin said. “I really didn’t pitch a whole lot here. I was OK with that, because this is a hitter’s ballpark. We played a lot of games here. It would’ve been really, really cool to get to go to back Sapporo and play in Sapporo Dome. I loved the fans there. Being here though, is amazing, it’s a really cool experience.”
Martin took the mound to close out MLB All-Stars’ 9-6 exhibition win over the Yomiuri Giants on Thursday and earned the save with a scoreless inning.
“Obviously it’s a little different situation today,” Martin said. “Little bit of nerves there at the beginning, but I’ve been here before and I’ve pitched to some of these guys before so that was definitely an advantage for me.”
Martin spent the 2016 and 2017 seasons with the Fighters. He made 92 appearances for the team and finished with 22 saves, 48 holds and a 1.12 ERA in 88⅓ innings. Twenty-one of his saves came in 2016, when he was a major piece out of the bullpen for a Fighters team that won both the Pacific League and Japan Series titles.
He signed with the Rangers in December and made the transition back to MLB after having learned the ins and outs of Japanese baseball.
“It wasn’t quite as difficult,” he said of the transition back to North America. “But when spring training started, I had to learn to be social in the clubhouse again.
“Usually here, you kind of do your own thing, you’re kind of on your own. In America, you have to get to know your teammates. I enjoy getting along with my teammates and ended up with a lot of great guys on our club.”
The 203-cm, 97-kg righty pitched in 46 games for Texas this season, finishing with a 4.54 ERA in 41⅔ innings.
“Obviously I wanted my numbers to be a little bit better than what they were, but it’s up and down,” Martin said. “I had a couple injuries here and there that made me have to reset and start over again. But I feel like I did OK. I feel like I learned a lot. Definitely learned a lot to take into next year.”
Like others who have returned to the majors after playing in Japan, including teammate Tony Barnette, Martin has tried to take the things he learned in Japan with him to the majors.
“I don’t think it was anything mechanically,” he said. “I think it was all mental. I’ve been saying it over and over again, you get to play in this atmosphere, and I got to pitch in a lot of big situations over here, and I’ve just learned to slow the game down.
“When your mind speeds up, your body speeds up. To be able to be in front of this atmosphere and learn and do that over and over again, you get more comfortable in those situations. So that helped a lot.”
Martin said he was happy to make the trip back to Japan. The 32-year-old hurler said the passion fans in Japan have for the game is something that had always stood out to him and he was excited to see it again.
He may no longer play for a Japanese team, but there is a big reminder of his NPB days right in the Rangers’ division in Shohei Ohtani, the Los Angeles Angels’ two-way star. Before Ohtani was leaving MLB fans in awe, he was playing alongside Martin with the Fighters.
“We met early in the season,” Martin said. “It was great. Just to seem him transition over there is awesome. He’s great in the clubhouse over there, guys love him. He’s by far one of the best guys to watch for me. Whenever he’s on, I want to watch.”