The art of pitching past one’s prime is being flexible — even when one’s body isn’t, Tokyo Yakult Swallows right-hander Ryota Igarashi said Sunday.
Igarashi, who will turn 40 next month, is tied for third-oldest pitcher in Nippon Professional Baseball after the Yomiuri Giants’ Koji Uehara and the Chunichi Dragons’ Daisuke Yamai. Igarashi could write a book on pitching when your body will not cooperate.
“My body tends to get stiff more easily,” he said at Jingu Stadium. “We all stretch before we work out. I do pre-stretching before that.”
Igarashi who pitched in the majors between 2010 and 2012, mostly with the New York Mets, spent the past six seasons with the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks. This year, he rejoined the Swallows, the club he signed with out of high school.
Although he is now a finesse pitcher rather than the guy who was half of the Swallows’ hard-throwing “Rocket Boys” relief duo from 2002 to 2005, Igarashi earned his first win with Yakult in 10 years on Friday.
“Wins for relievers are random things. It’s kind of too bad the hold stat wasn’t a thing back in the day,” said Igarashi, who said his goal is to pitch in over 50 games for the first time since 2015.
He added: “Of course I want to exceed that number. That’s the quota for a middle reliever.”
Standing in the way of that goal is a daily battle with lower back and knee issues that never seem to hurt the same way two days in a row.
“It’s like my body changes with every day. The critical thing is understanding and dealing with whatever it is,” he said. “When I was young, the most important thing was trying to achieve my ideal performance. Now it’s choosing how to respond to my body’s daily demands. Over the years, I’ve learned to be pretty adaptable.
“When everything feels great, no problem, but relatively speaking, the real test is being flexible in able to respond when everything doesn’t. That’s what it’s like to be an old guy.”
Although he only pitched 23 games last season with the Hawks, Igarashi said he counts himself lucky, because his arm has been sound.
“The most important thing is having a healthy elbow and shoulder,” he said. “(Teammate Hayato) Terahara has had knee trouble. I’ve had lower back problems, and lower-body issues, but because our elbows and shoulders are OK, we can still pitch.
“People always talk about the lower body, and every part of your body is important, but if a pitcher has to choose, he’d go for a healthy elbow and shoulder.”
With his body putting limits on what he can and cannot do on a daily basis, Igarashi not surprisingly credits his time in the majors and the U.S. minor leagues, because that’s where he learned a lot about exceeding limitations.
“It was a huge shock to find that many things were not necessarily the way I thought they had to be,” he said. “The batters were great, the pitchers were great, had so many different pitches and deliveries. I had a cut fastball in Japan but was not allowed to throw it. Over there I had no choice but to throw it.
“I found that what I considered (in Japan) to be the limits of my ability, had become limits because I had labeled them as such. I was pushed to innovate and do more by being thrust into a different environment. That was so important to me.”
Still, having learned those lessons from 83 major league games and 90 minor league appearances, Igarashi is happy to be back in Japan.
“From the standpoint of scheduled days off, fewer games and less travel, playing in Japan is far preferable to being in the (United) States,” Igarashi said.
“The minors (in the U.S.) are hell. Four a.m. flights, where you stay up drinking instead of sleeping. After you arrive, there’s a nap and then you’re off to the ballpark. The balls are different, too, between the minors and the majors. Big league balls are quite different, and to be honest, I never had a good feel for them.
“Thinking about it now makes me feel nostalgic, though.”