Zach Neal knew he was going to be the Seibu Lions’ opening day starter. He just didn’t know for sure there would actually be an opening day.
Neal was tapped to start the opener back in February, before COVID-19 rose to pandemic levels, delayed the start of the season and left everyone in limbo.
Now that there is definitely a 2020 season, starting June 19, Neal is just excited to be able to kickoff the Lions’ quest for a third straight Pacific League pennant.
“It’s crazy,” Neal told The Japan Times. “I don’t think anyone could’ve envisioned it being like this, with no fans and three months later than when it was supposed to be.”
The Columbia, South Carolina, native will be the first foreign pitcher to get the nod on opening day for Seibu since Taiwan’s Kuo Tai-yuan in 1995.
“It’s a huge honor for me, something that I take very seriously,” Neal said. “To be an American starting for a Japanese team on opening day, that’s kind of like a dream come true. You can’t write it up any better.”
Neal arrived in Japan this year ready to build upon a debut season that saw him go 12-1 with a 2.87 ERA. He was named the opening day starter near the end of camp and pitched in two preseason games before the coronavirus shut down sports.
On March 9, the season, due to begin March 20, was officially delayed.
What followed was weeks of wondering when — or if — baseball would start.
“You show up to the field everyday and you hear the new rumor,” Neal said. “We’re not going to play at all or we’re going to play in August. No one knew anything. So that was the hard part. I’m coming to the field everyday, but this might not even happen. It took a lot of mental strength and a lot of hope that this would actually happen.”
Japan would eventually come under a state of emergency, which led NPB teams to suspend full-squad practices.
The Seibu coaches mostly allowed Neal to chart his own course during this period. Since he’d gone through spring training and was already in shape, he focused his individual training on his throwing.
“Because that’s the hardest part coming back so quick, making sure that your arm is in good shape,” he said.
The state of emergency was lifted May 25 and NPB, after a few false starts, settled on a start date the same day.
“Once they announced that (June) 19th start, it was such a great feeling and gave me a little bit of time to make some sort of outline for my workload,” Neal said. “It was just a big relief.”
Last month, the Lions reconvened as a full team and ramped up their preparations to defend the pennant.
“For a little while, it felt like individual practice, so there wasn’t that team atmosphere,” Neal said. “So that was kind of tough. Everyone had their own program.
“But I feel like now that we’re back together as a team, it’s like we didn’t skip a beat really.”
Lions fans are eager to see Neal also pick up where he left off.
In 2019, he ranked fourth with a 60.2 ground ball percentage and was tied for the third-fewest home runs allowed (eight) among pitchers who threw at least 90 innings. He dropped his only decision in his second start and reeled off 11 wins over his next 15.
“It’s hard to top a season like that,” Neal said. “I did a lot of work in the minor leagues when I was down there. I really just tried to get in touch with my body and my mechanics. I think that really clicked for me. I’ve done my best to carry that over to this year.
“You don’t change it if it’s working. I can’t say I want to try and do something better. I just hope to bring that same intensity everyday like I did last year and stay with my routine and trust the guys behind me. We’ve got a really good team.”
He got to see exactly how good they are during an intrasquad game in May. The Lions have the most explosive offense in NPB and fighting with — not against — them suits Neal just fine.
“Being a free agent last year, that weighed into my thought process of, ‘man I don’t wanna face these guys, I don’t want to be in the same league as this team,'” he said. “This is the best hitting team in the league. Facing those guys in the intrasquad, just knowing how good they are, was a pretty good test.”