CHIBA – Ukyo Shuto might not need his bat and glove. But he can still be a difference maker for Samurai Japan in the Premier 12 and beyond.
Monday’s game against Australia in its Super Round opener was a great example of that.
Down 2-1 in the seventh inning, Japan manager Atsunori Inaba designated Shuto as a pinch runner for Masataka Yoshida, who reached first base on a single.
Right at that time, the 23-year-old received thunderous cheers from the fans at Zozo Marine Stadium, because they knew what he was doing: Taking the next base with his legs.
He did. But not just one, not two, but three. All in the same inning. And the third one was an important game-tying run, which perhaps could not have been done by many base runners.
“We wanted to score a run by any means in that situation, Shuto stole second and even third. He really did a great job,” Japan manager Atsunori Inaba said after a 3-2 win over the Aussies.
Shuto has earned the utmost trust from the coaching staff and receives a green light so he can take off anytime he feels he can steal a base. That was the case in this situation.
But when he reached second on a stolen base with one out, Shuto stayed cool and waited patiently until he made sure he could swipe third base.
“I was certainly aiming at (third base) when I was on second,” Shuto recalled of that moment. “But (the pitching motion of Australian pitcher Luke Wilkins) was kind of fast. So it made me think that I should not take off right there.”
And one batter later, his wait was over. After Wilkins fanned Nobuhiro Matsuda for the second out of the inning, Shuto did not miss that the right-hander’s slide step against Sosuke Genda was not as quick.
“When I saw the first pitch to Genda, I thought I would definitely run,” Shuto said. “I thought I would be safe at the bag. And the pitcher, even the fielders, were focusing more on the hitter than they were when it was one out.”
Stealing third base with two outs would normally be considered risky. But Shuto didn’t think that way.
“I didn’t think I’d get caught,” said the Gunma Prefecture native, who was drafted by the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks in the ikusei (developmental) draft in 2017 and debuted in the top league this year. “If they made a throwing error, we’d score a run automatically, and also I thought that it’d make it easier for Genda by me being on third rather than on second.”
Australia skipper Dave Nilsson gave full credit to Shuto as if there was nothing his team could do against the Japanese player’s speed.
“The speed of Shuto is world class,” said Nilsson, a former MLB and NPB player. “He’s one of the fastest runners in the game and anytime he gets on the bases it obviously puts a lot of pressure on the defense. That was the case tonight.”
As a professional player seeking a longtime career, Shuto needs to polish his game going forward. But with Samurai Japan looking at nothing but the gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics, Shuto’s rare dashing ability could be something that could give a better chance for the team to take closer games and achieve the ultimate goal at the Summer Games.
“It’s the best for me to do a job like today,” Shuto, who hit .196 in 102 games for the Japan Series champion Hawks in 2019, said about the rest of of the Premier 12. “And that’s what I’ve been called up for.”