Handing the ball to Yuki Nishi to start the season was probably a no-brainer for the Hanshin Tigers.
Nishi was a celebrated free-agent acquisition in the winter of 2018, when he switched his Kansai allegiances from the Orix Buffaloes to the Tigers. He was Hanshin’s best pitcher in his first year with the club, winning 10 games with a 2.92 ERA (fifth-best in the Central League) and 1.13 WHIP in 172⅓ innings. After 10 seasons with the mostly moribund Buffaloes, with whom he reached the playoffs only once, Nishi helped Hanshin get to the final stage of the Climax Series last year.
Considering his success in 2019, Nishi likely entered spring camp eager to build upon it in 2020. The anticipation would’ve only grown as the calendar flipped to March and brought opening day, March 20, into sight. By then, the 29-year-old would be raring to get going.
Except he won’t be making a start next Friday, or the one after that or possibly even the next one. Nishi is still getting the ball on opening day, it’s just no one knows when that’s going to be.
Nishi and the rest of NPB’s pitchers had their preparations shaken up on Monday by the league’s move to postpone the start of the season until sometime in April. The decision is part of NPB’s response to the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak.
So with no definite start date, teams are essentially stuck in spring training. For position players, it’s just more reps before games start to count. The preparation for pitchers, though, is more fine-tuned and detail-oriented.
“The thing we have to think about most is the pitching,” said Yokohama DeNA BayStars manager Alex Ramirez on Tuesday in Yokohama. “The pitchers, the starting pitchers and how we can set up a starting rotation. We don’t know what’s going to happen now and when we’re going to start, so the rotation may change a little bit.
“I don’t worry about the position players too much. The starting rotation, that’s the only one where we have to think a little bit more. “
Hanshin skipper Akihiro Yano said delaying the season was something that couldn’t be helped and teams will have to adjust.
“In the preseason, pitchers throw fewer innings and they don’t get enough playing time,” he said. “Since we’ll have a longer preseason, we have more time to evaluate our pitchers.
“On the other hand, we’ve already decided to start Nishi on opening day. It could also be difficult for those slated to pitch in the opener to get in shape.”
Many teams name their opening day starters well in advance. The Seibu Lions for instance, announced Zach Neal as their man on Feb. 18. The Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters tapped Kohei Arihara on Feb. 21.
“We were preparing to start on March 20,” Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles ace Takahiro Norimoto was quoted as saying by Sankei Sports during a media scrum Tuesday. “But it can’t be helped in this sort of situation.”
Those players, and the candidates for the other spots in teams’ rotations, tailored their training for a March 20 start. Now they’ll have to scale back somewhat and avoid putting too much stress on their arms over the extended spring.
“When NPB makes the decision about when the opening day will be, we will have about maybe one or two weeks in advance, I’m pretty sure,” Ramirez said. “So at that time we can set up the rotation.”
Right now, it’s still anyone’s guess as to exactly when the season will start and all 12 teams, and their pitching staffs, are in a holding pattern and trying to balance staying fresh with avoiding injuries.
“It won’t have an effect,” Orix Buffaloes pitcher Taisuke Yamaoka told the assembled media on Tuesday at Kyocera Dome. “I wouldn’t be a pro if I couldn’t get ready, no matter when the season opens.”