Baseball / Japanese Baseball

Hideaki Wakui, Yuki Matsui key to Eagles' attack on mound

by Jason Coskrey

Staff Writer

Hideaki Wakui gave himself a passing grade following his start against the Yomiuri Giants on Sunday, the final scheduled day of preseason games in Japanese baseball.

Wakui allowed a pair of runs over five innings in the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles’ victory. Despite a shaky finish and the two runs he gave up, Wakui was pleased with the way his change-up played against the Yomiuri lineup, which at the beginning of the afternoon featured most of the Central League’s champion’s biggest stars.

Wakui is one of the new members of the Eagles’ starting rotation whose year may determine whether there will be an A- or B-Class grade on the club’s report card after the pennant race. The same could be said for Yuki Matsui, the fireballing lefty who will try to apply the skills he’s honed in the bullpen over the last several years to a role as a starting pitcher this season.

Those two figure to be important pieces in a starting rotation that could to be much better, and deeper, than it was last season if it all works out.

They’ll each get more time than usual to prepare for the test this year after NPB pushed back opening day, which was slated for March 20, last week as part of its response to the COVID-19 outbreak. That leaves teams essentially stuck in spring training and playing practice games until at least April.

“There’s not really anything hard about it,” Wakui said about the schedule upheaval on Sunday. “I’ll just practice the way I normally do. Actually, it gives me time to focus on some of the things I want to work on.”

The change-up was a focal point on Sunday, and he went to it more in his second turn through the Yomiuri lineup. He used it to strike out Hayato Sakamoto in the third inning and then retired Yoshihiro Maru and Kazuma Okamoto, who didn’t get good swings on the pitch.

Overall, Wakui struck out four and didn’t walk any batters in his five innings.

“I was preparing for next week and I just wanted to throw a good game in my last start, I think I can give myself a passing grade,” Wakui said. “Looking back at camp and practice, I think I’m adjusting pretty well.”

The Eagles acquired Wakui in a cash trade with the Chiba Lotte Marines over the offseason. The 33-year-old right-hander is a former Sawamura Award winner, but coming off a year in which he posted a 4.50 ERA — but with a 3.93 fielding independent pitching — in 104 innings. Rakuten hopes he offsets the loss of Manabu Mima, who signed with the Marines as a free agent, and gives the team another solid arm in the rotation.

In 2019, the Eagles’ starters finished with a 4.17 ERA that was 10th among the 12 NPB clubs. Only the Seibu Lions (4.64) and Tokyo Yakult Swallows (5.05) were worse.

This year, the club is banking on a return to health from its top two pitchers ace Takahiro Norimoto and Takayuki Kishi, who combined for just 27 starts last season. It’s also banking on Wakui being solid and Matsui being able to make a smooth transition into a starting role.

While Wakui has a recent track record as a starter. Matsui is more of a wildcard.

Matsui, 24, was dynamite as Rakuten’s closer last season, leading NPB with 38 saves and striking out 107 in 69⅔ frames. Now, with four 30-plus save seasons under his belt, the 24-year old is looking to open games instead of close them.

He’s been a starter in the past, but to mixed results, and moving from the pen and pitching more innings will require an adjustment.

On Sunday against the Giants, he pitched for the first time since March 7, when he was hit by a batted ball during a game against the Chunichi Dragons.

“He had a solid performance,” Rakuten manager Hajime Miki said. “He looked like himself. We’ll take today’s results as we think about what’s coming next.”

Matsui entered the game in the sixth and retired Maru and Okamoto before walking Gerardo Parra. He wrapped up his only inning on the mound by getting Shunta Tanaka to pop-up in foul territory.

“It sort of gave me some peace of mind,” Matsui said about his outing.

He hasn’t had a great spring numbers-wise, allowing nine runs — seven earned — in nine innings, but was able to take positive vibes away from Sunday’s game.

“I want to continue trying to get out of the first inning without allowing a run after becoming a starter,” Matsui said. “I want to have good innings like this as if I’m still a reliever.”

Coronavirus banner