Baseball / Japanese Baseball | NPB Preview

BayStars closer Yasuaki Yamasaki hopes to convey positive message to fans when NPB season begins

by Jason Coskrey

STAFF WRITER

Yasuaki Yamasaki was as nervous as he’d ever been during his career.

The Yokohama BayStars closer has pitched in All-Star games, the Climax Series and the Japan Series. In November, he took the mound in the ninth inning of the Premier12 final to secure title for Samurai Japan at Tokyo Dome.

All a walk in the park next interviewing BayStars owner Tomoko Namba for the final episode of “Totsugeki Yasuaki Mic,” his short-lived YouTube show.

“I was extremely nervous when I spoke with Namba-san,” Yamasaki told The Japan Times via Zoom from Yokohama Stadium. “It was a honor to get to speak with her for such a long time.”

Yamasaki even wore a suit for the occasion, though apologetically traded it for a sweatshirt before long.

The show, where he conducted online interviews, was an idea born out of wanting to connect with fans during baseball’s coronavirus-induced shutdown.

“I wanted to do something for the fans and thought I could put something together,” Yamasaki said. “Together with the team, we were able to put this great thing together. I think that’s where it came from.”

In addition to Namba, he also interviewed teammates such as Hiroki Minei and Toshiro Miyazaki.

“I’ve been close with Minei-san and Miyazaki-san since college,” Yamasaki said. “So it felt like a normal video call. While we were talking, I just got the feeling like it was a normal conversation, but I was the most nervous when I spoke to Namba-san.”

As much as Yamasaki enjoyed moonlighting as a YouTuber, he’s also excited to return to his day job when the season opens Friday.

Yamasaki enters 2020 looking to lead the CL in saves for the third straight season after racking up 37 two years ago and 30 last year.

He made 61 appearances in 2019, finishing with a 1.95 ERA and 54 strikeouts.

“Of course, I would like to win the title for the third straight year,” Yamasaki said. “As far as this year, I want to win the Japan Series, something we didn’t achieve last season.

“Additionally, I absolutely want to maintain my position as the closer until the end. I’d like to be able to be steady as the closer for the entire year.”

Yamasaki is also extremely confident in his bullpen mates.

“The strength of our bullpen is that anyone can go anytime,” he said. “(Spencer) Patton, (Edwin) Escobar, (Kazuki) Mishima, (Yuki) Kuniyoshi or (Tomoya) Mikami can pitch in the ninth, or go in the game in the seventh and do long relief.

“This is a strength only Yokohama has.”

When baseball was stuck in place from early March until late May, due to COVID-19, Yamasaki just focused on staying ready.

“During the time we were prevented from practicing, I was still able to visit Yokohama Stadium’s practice facility,” Yamasaki said. “While at home, I did some core training and exercises to strengthen my shoulder and elbow so my condition didn’t suffer. I’d also ride my bike at night. I like road bikes, so I went riding.”

Like most NPB players, he’s bracing for a season unlike any other because of the virus.

“Even under this difficult situation, as baseball players we need to be flexible,” Yamasaki said. “While it might be hard to be 100 percent under these circumstances, we need to put in the effort to be the best we can.”

As difficult as it is for NPB players, they can at least take solace in the fact they can play.

While NPB is following Taiwan’s Chinese Professional Baseball League and South Korea’s Korea Baseball Organization in starting its season, the league is still much further along than MLB, which doesn’t even have a start date yet.

Both the CPBL and KBO drew increased interest from North America when their seasons opened and now it could be NPB’s turn in the spotlight.

“I want them to see Japan’s style of baseball,” Yamasaki said of curious MLB fans. “It could be a good business chance. I think it’s a good opportunity for us to challenge in the U.S. market. I want them to become interested in Japanese baseball.

“I think it’s a chance for us to show them how high of a level our game is, and of course we are hoping they’ll watch us play (by obtaining) TV rights or through the news.”

As for domestic fans, Yamasaki is hopeful of seeing them when it’s safe for crowds to fill the stands again. NPB will begin its season behind closed doors. Until then, he’s trying to stay connected through social networking services and in other ways.

“We’re in an environment where the fans aren’t able to come to the stadium and see us playing and in uniform,” he said. “As pro baseball players, we want to show people our performance and it’s a really difficult feeling. By using SNS, I can at least see some of the fans’ smiling faces. As a player, I want to show them how much fun it is to watch baseball through SNS. I think its important to show good content there.”

A lack of fans in Yokohama Stadium will be jarring to anyone familiar with watching Yamasaki, a crowd favorite who has one of the most distinctive entrances in NPB, the Yasuaki Jump.

When Yamasaki enters home games, Zombie Nation’s “Kernkraft 400” blasts through the stadium speakers and fans bounce in place while chanting “Ya-su-a-ki” in rhythm to the music. It’s become among the must-see scenes in NPB.

“The Yasuaki Jump has become something that really gives me a lot of energy,” Yamasaki said. “So I will be hoping and dreaming for the day I can see the fans smiling and doing the Yasuaki Jump at the stadium again.

“I will trust in the fans and trust my teammates that I’ll be able to see the jump again and I’ll do my best for Yokohama.”

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