One of the biggest adjustments Yokohama BayStars rookie pitcher Yuya Sakamoto made on Saturday was wearing a hat one size smaller than usual.
When the left-hander pitched for Ritsumeikan University, his cap had a tendency to come flying off, and he was under orders from the BayStars to keep the rebellious piece of clothing under control.
“There would be a pitching change if it flew off three times,” Sakamoto said Saturday with a slight smile, repeating what he was told by pitching coach Atsushi Kizuka.
Luckily, Sakamoto kept both his hat and the Yomiuri Giants down in a practice game at Tokyo Dome, pitching three innings without allowing a run against the Kyojin.
Under normal circumstances, Sakamoto might not have been on the mound at all, or at least not in the Big Egg, on Saturday. The game was originally planned as the second contest of the regular season and the start might not have gone to the rookie. The 2020 campaign, however, was pushed back until April because of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, giving Sakamoto, and other players, more time to impress their managers and get noticed.
Sakamoto’s teammate Takayuki Kajitani is another player trying to get manger Alex Ramirez’s attention. Kajitani also played Saturday and furthered his cause to win the job in center field with a three-hit day that included a stolen base.
“I have to try and make my case everyday, so I’m happy with that,” Kajitani said. “I haven’t really had a lot of chances to run since camp, so I want to get a feel and do some running in real games.”
Kajitani hit .304 with a homer in 23 at-bats in spring training.
“He’s been swinging the bat pretty good and stealing bases, making things happen,” Ramirez said. “I definitely have to consider him there in that position (center).”
Sakamoto also tried did his part to warrant some consideration for a spot on the top team. He allowed one hit and struck out two against a Giants team that had Hayato Sakamoto, Yoshihiro Maru and Kazuma Okamoto in the lineup.
“I still want him to be able to command his pitches a little bit better,” Ramirez said. “Between his pitching and the Giants’ hitting, I don’t know which one it was. I don’t know if he was pitching good or the Giants didn’t have the best timing, because they were missing so many fastballs around the middle. I want him to be a little bit more careful with those pitches.”
Sakamoto on Saturday extended his streak of scoreless innings to eight over his last two appearances. There was, however, a contrast with the way he handled himself compared to the control Shota Imanaga, who might get the start on opening day, displayed when he took over in the fourth inning.
“When you look at the difference between him and Imanaga, it kind of looked like Imanaga really knew what he was doing,” Ramirez said.
Because of the extended period before the season, Sakamoto should get another chance to impress.
“He pitched three innings, and hopefully later on he can pitch a few more innings and more pitches,” Ramirez said. “I wanna see a little bit of a difference. I don’t want the hitters to feel like ‘I just missed this pitch. I can’t wait until I face him in the season.’ That’s not the feeling that I want to see from the hitters.”
Similarly, Kajitani will have more chances to wrap up a spot for himself in the outfield.
“I just want to get results when I play,” he said.
The extended audition period will continue for players across NPB as everyone waits for the season to start. Ramirez plans to give more young players a chance to experience the top level during this time, but said his focus is on his established players.
“I want to use the main guys, maybe 80 percent and then use the rookie guys,” Ramirez said of the team’s upcoming slate of practice games.
“We’re not going to bring too many guys up from ni-gun. That way we don’t have to worry too much about using the young guys. We focus on the veteran guys and make those guys ready for opening day.”