Baseball

Japan closer Yasuaki Yamasaki fueled by memories of disappointment at inaugural Premier12

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

There are no players as motivated as Yasuaki Yamasaki who are competing for Japan in the ongoing Premier12.

The Yokohama BayStars star closer was part of Samurai Japan in the tournament’s inaugural edition in 2015, when the team reluctantly settled for a bronze medal in his first year in pro.

But Yamasaki has tried to channel that frustration into energy to help the team capture the gold medal this time.

Playing around superstars like Shohei Ohtani, Kenta Maeda and others, Japan was in a great position to capture the title four years ago. Through the quarterfinals, Japan was the only unbeaten team, but the run came to an end in an unexpected, disappointing fashion in the semifinals against South Korea.

In that contest, Ohtani, the starting pitcher for Japan, was nearly unhittable. The then-Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters right-handed fire-baller tossed seven scoreless innings, giving up just one hit and striking out 11. But the team’s relievers blew a three-run lead in the ninth and ended up falling 4-3 to the eventual champions.

“Four years ago (in the semifinals), I remember (Takahiro) Norimoto, (Yuki) Matsui (both of the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles) and (Orix Buffaloes (Hirotoshi) Masui pitched as relievers for us,” Yamasaki said after Japan’s 3-1 win over Mexico on Wednesday night, when he posted a save while working in the ninth, at Tokyo Dome.

After all, Yamasaki, whose signature out pitch is a nasty two-seamer, could do nothing but observe his team taking a humiliating defeat.

But the 27-year-old, who has notched 163 saves in his five-year pro career, has been eager to capitalize on the bitter experience at the second Premier12.

“There’s certainly pressure, but that’s what I’ve been asking for,” said Yamasaki, who has not given up any runs in seven innings in seven games in the two editions of the Premier12. “The experiences I’ve gained have become great assets for me to be a better player.”

At BayStars home games, Yamasaki’s entrance in the ninth inning and appearance on the mound is one of the most electrifying moments at Yokohama Stadium — or perhaps the entire NPB. With Kernkraft 400’s “Zombie Nation” being played, he heads toward the mound on a cart receiving loud chants “Ya-su-a-ki!” from thousands of BayStars fans.

Though it was not his home stadium, Yamasaki heard the same chants from the bleachers at the Big Egg on Wednesday.

“The music wasn’t played, but a variety of different people (fans for other teams not named the BayStars) came and screamed ‘Yasuaki,’ ” said Yamasaki, who led the Central League in saves in 2018 and 2019, with a mild smile. “I’ll burn that into my memory. I’m glad about it.”

And beyond the Premier12, Yamasaki looks to compete at the 2020 Olympics, which will be held in his native Tokyo, as Japan’s fireman.

“I’m honored to be on the mound,” he said of donning the Japanese jersey pitching in international tournaments. “It’s fortunate that we are able to battle here and show our competitiveness before 2020.”