Scott Mathieson had appeared in 393 games for the Yomiuri Giants entering this season. Over the past seven years, he’s come out the Yomiuri bullpen mostly tasked with either protecting leads, keeping the Kyojin in games or closing out wins.
Mathieson has been a vital member of the club since 2012. He was part of a Japan Series winner in his first season and on the 2013 squad that won the Central League pennant. He was an All-Star in 2016 and last year he was one of Yomiuri’s captains.
So when a guy like that is gone for an extended period, the fans notice.
Giants fans let Mathieson know just how much they missed him when he made his return from knee surgery on June 6 on the road against the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles. The cheers were even louder the next day, when the Vancouver native pitched in his first game back home at Tokyo Dome.
“Very humbling,” Mathieson told The Japan Times. “It’s something that I don’t think I’ve realized until this year, the support and everything that I really have. The fans, honestly . . . running on the field, most of the time I’m focused on what’s going to happen, but I had chill bumps.
“After pitching (against Rakuten) it felt like I was going to choke up on the bench hearing everybody cheer. I’m not one who really gets choked up too often. So that was a humbling experience and very emotional and something I’ll remember forever.”
Mathieson, 35, was limited to just 34 appearances last season. He was taken off the roster with left knee pain on July 29. His season was over less than a month later, with the pitcher returning to the U.S. in late August to have surgery on his knee.
He returned to Japan on March 1, one month after the start of camp, to continue on the road toward getting back on the diamond.
The right-hander pitched in his first game of the year, a ni-gun contest, on May 15. He made a few more appearances on the farm before his top-team return against Rakuten.
That game, he says, felt a little different because of his time away.
“It felt more like when I first got called up to the big leagues,” he said. “Being more like a rookie where, not unsure, I definitely felt good on the mound, but it was more like the excitement. I felt that.
“Usually I’m able to get out there and I have focus, I have a job and I need to execute. So definitely I look forward to getting back to that, and I feel like I’m there now. But it was exciting. It was an emotional and exciting moment for me.
“Even though it might have hindered my performance a little bit, I was able to get through it and get out of it and it was special.”
Mathieson tossed two-thirds of an inning in Sendai against the Eagles. He threw a scoreless frame against the Chiba Lotte Marines at Tokyo Dome on June 7 and was named one of the game’s heros.
“It’s nice, that’s why I’m here,” Mathieson said of being back on the field. “It’s not enjoyable just rehabbing. If I’m over here, I want to be back pitching and hopefully helping out the team.
“It’s frustrating watching games on TV and knowing you aren’t there to help. Maybe I could help, or I couldn’t, but in my mind I always think I can help. So watching the games from a couch is a lot different than being in the bullpen and having that adrenaline thinking I could be the next pitcher out there.”
Mathieson, like all athletes, is thankful for the chance to be playing again. He’s now in his eighth year in Japan and has 53 saves, 168 holds and a 25-27 record.
“I hope I’ll definitely get better than where I’m at now,” he said. “I feel good. Mentally, I feel really good. That’s the thing I struggle with. On the mound or in the bullpen, in my head I feel like I should be able to do a little bit more than what my ability is right now.
“Every pitch, I want it to be perfect, and it might not be right now. That gets frustrating, but you’ll never be perfect. It’ll always be that way. I guess when I get to the point that I’m not frustrated with that it’s time to pack it in and stop playing.”
Right now, Mathieson is happy to be back with his teammates, who had stayed in touch with messages during his time away.
“These are guys I’ve been playing with for the last seven years,” he said. “It’s nice to be able see them and it’s nice to be able to be back in the bullpen with everybody and on the team with everybody and get to see (Shinnosuke) Abe hit his 400th home run and (Hayato) Sakamoto’s 200th. I’m glad to be back and be back in this atmosphere.”