Zach Neal might have had an image of how his first start in Japan might go, but it’s unlikely there were Chiba Lotte Marines standing on every base with one out in the second inning in his version.
But a grounder to second and a strikeout got everything back on track for the new Seibu Lions pitcher, who walked off a winner on a day he’d been waiting on for a few years.
“The whole day itself was a pretty cool experience,” Neal told the Japan Times on Saturday at Tokyo Dome, where the Lions were facing the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters. “Just having my first start here in Japan, and the road that I’ve been on to get here has been long, but this is something that I’ve always wanted to do.
“So to get a win in the first game, and in front of the home crowd, was more than ideal. That’s kind of how I drew it up in my head, but that’s not how it always works. So it was a pretty special night for sure.”
Neal pitched 5⅓ innings in that game on April 2 at MetLife Dome in Tokorozawa. He allowed a pair of runs on five hits with three strikeouts and the Lions beat the Marines 7-4.
The 30-year-old is in Japan after stints with the Oakland Athletics and Los Angeles Dodgers in MLB. He’d wanted to play in Asia for at least the past three years. There were near-misses during that time and a couple of offers from Korea that fell through. Then there was the relief of striking a deal with the Lions this past winter.
“Being in the big leagues with Oakland and the Dodgers, that was a dream come true,” he said. “But the years in between from then and now, it’s been . . . some would say a grind. But everything happens for a reason, I’m a firm believer in that.”
For Neal, it was a chance for he and his family to travel and experience a new culture. The move was also a chance for him to get the opportunities he sought on the diamond.
“I wanted the chance to start,” Neal said. “I wanted the chance to be able to start 28 to 30 games with a team that wants me to do that.”
Neal started just six of his 31 MLB games and overall is 2-4 with a 4.94 ERA there. He spent most of 2018 in Triple-A, first in the Reds’ system, then the Dodgers’ organization following a trade that July.
The Columbia, South Carolina, native is a sinker-changeup pitcher who likes to keep the ball on the ground. He’s learning more about the Japanese game each day and how to approach hitters who are adept at not striking out, fouling off pitches and putting the ball in play.
“I know what I have to do to combat that,” Neal said. “It’s just about doing it. It’s just about making pitches when you need to and for me, It’s just about executing. If I execute my pitch, it doesn’t matter if I’m in Japan, the U.S., that’s baseball.”
The ball in Japan is also different, slightly smaller and tackier, but it didn’t take long for the right-hander to get used to that.
“It’s awesome,” Neal said. “It’s better. I’ve got smaller hands, so the big league ball was always a tough adjustment for me.”
While Neal had gotten plenty of information about NPB from Yu Darvish and former teammates who had played in Japan, many players learn there’s no substitute for experience.
“A lot of things are different here,” said Lions slugger Ernesto Mejia, who is in his sixth NPB season. “The strike zone, the way that we practice here is different and the way we get ready for the game is different. Pitchers practice on game days. When they have to pitch in the game they still have practice.”
Mejia said everything was “weird” for him when he arrived in Japan, but that eventually the differences became normal.
“You gotta make adjustments,” he said. “Baseball is an adjustments game. Whoever can’t adjust to this game, can’t play this game.
“He is making adjustments. He’s showing he can keep pitching in this game in Japan. I’m happy for him, he got his first win right away. It’s good for him to make him feel more confident.”
For Neal, it’s only been a couple of months and one start, but so far, so good.
“I was longing for a different scene, a different visual, to meet new people and experience a new culture that I’ve heard so many great things about,” he said. “It’s just living up to all those expectations.