Osaka – Tomoyuki Sugano raised his left arm and used the sleeve of his uniform to wipe his forehead as he stood on the mound with a mixture of sweat and frustration streaming down his face.
A two-run deficit against the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks had just become four — courtesy of a two-run double by Ryoya Kurihara — during the sixth inning and the Yomiuri Giants ace could likely feel the game slipping away. He promptly retired Alfredo Despaigne to get out of the inning, but the damage had been done.
The best team in Japan got the best of one of the country’s top pitchers, as the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks rolled to a 5-1 win over Sugano and the Kyojin in Game 1 of the Japan Series on Saturday at Kyocera Dome in Osaka.
Sugano’s final tally looked worse than how he actually pitched. He was charged with four runs on six hits over six innings.
Kurihara, mostly unheralded before this season, did all the damage against him, connecting on a two-run homer in the second and that double in the sixth.
“Because he’s such an amazing pitcher, I just felt like ‘let’s go,'” Kurihara said after the game. “I didn’t have any weight on my shoulders and I was just able to hit.”
Sugano told reporters after the game he was looking ahead and making adjustments for the next chance he gets in this series.
Many are looking a lot further down the road.
Sugano’s future has been the subject of rampant speculation this year. The New York Post’s Joel Sherman kicked off the latest round last month, writing Sugano “is viewed as more likely than not to be posted in the coming weeks and become available to major league teams.”
Pinpoint control and a quality arsenal of pitches, especially his slider, have made Sugano one of the top-rated pitchers in the world.
The mere suggestion he could be posted — as the Giants generally only barely acknowledge the system exists — was laughable until Yomiuri posted pitcher Shun Yamaguchi last year. Once Yamaguchi, who got an agreement mixed into his free-agent deal in 2016, found an escape hatch, all eyes turned to Sugano.
Because in terms of contributions to the team no player, perhaps except Hayato Sakamoto, who seems content in Japan, deserves a special pass more than Sugano.
He’s won an MVP and two Sawamura Awards. He also sacrificed a year of his career for Yomiuri in order to re-enter the draft after the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters won the lottery for his rights in 2011. Sugano is 101-49 with a 2.32 ERA in eight seasons.
Once the final out of the Japan Series is recorded, his future will be among the biggest stories in baseball.
Samurai Japan manager Atsunori Inaba will also be watching. Because if Sugano is in Japan in 2021, he’d be available to give the national team a huge boost in its mission to win gold at the Tokyo Olympics — provided there actually is a Tokyo Olympics next summer. If he doesn’t come out this year, he may be in line to move as a free agent after next season.
As for Sugano’s present, he’s hoping for another shot at the Hawks, who also beat him in the final game of the 2019 Japan Series to complete a sweep.
Sugano began this year’s opener with a 1-2-3 first inning. In the second, he gave up a hit to Yurisbel Gracial and hung a slider that Kurihara hit for a home run.
“Going up against a great pitcher like Sugano, Kurihara hit the home run and it gave us some momentum on the bench,” Hawks manager Kimiyasu Kudo said.
Sugano retired the next eight batters before giving up a double to Kurihara in the fourth. He then allowed a single to Despaigne, but got an assist when outfielder Zelous Wheeler threw out Kurihara at home from shallow left.
Sugano then sat down five straight before hitting Yuki Yanagita, giving up a single to Gracial and, finally, a two-run double to Kurihara that made it 4-0 in the sixth.
“I don’t know how I’m going to play tomorrow,” Kurihara said after his 3-for-3 night. “I don’t know whether I’ll hit or I won’t hit. I just really need to do my best in order to help the team win.”
The Hawks have been doing plenty of that. Saturday marked their record ninth straight Japan Series victory. Akira Nakamura drove in a run for SoftBank in the eighth and Wheeler got the Giants on the board in the ninth to make it 5-1.
Sugano wasn’t the only MLB target on the mound on Saturday.
The Hawks’ Kodai Senga held up his end of the blockbuster pitching matchup with seven scoreless innings. Senga, who hit 158 kph (98 mph) during the game, struck out six and has now won Game 1 in the Japan Series in three of the last four years.
“He was phenomenal to hold them to no runs in seven innings while pitching on a big stage like this,” Kudo said. “He knew how important this first game would be and he was going to go full throttle from the beginning.”
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.