Yokohama – Four pitches was all it took for everything to go bad for Yasuaki Yamasaki.
Yamasaki was called on to get the Yokohama DeNA BayStars, leading 4-2 at the time, out of a jam against the Tokyo Yakult Swallows during the eighth inning of their home opener on Tuesday.
Instead, Yasutaka Shiomi laced Yamasaki’s third pitch into left field to drive in two runs. Shingo Kawabata connected on Yamasaki’s fourth pitch to put the Swallows ahead 5-4.
Just like that, DeNA’s three-run lead became a one-run deficit.
Yamasaki didn’t slowly sink in quicksand, he stepped into a sinkhole, and the BayStars, who might’ve been thinking of celebrating their first win of the season, were suddenly still winless (0-3-1) after four games.
“I’m really feeling how hard it is to just get one win,” new manager Daisuke Miura said Tuesday night.
Before Yamasaki took the mound, reliever Kenta Ishida walked a batter to start the eighth but nearly got out of the frame on a 2-2 pitch to Munetaka Murakami with two outs. Ishida threw a slider Murakami began to offer at before stopping mid-swing. The third base umpire ruled Murakami successfully checked his swing, and Ishida walked him on the next pitch. That brought up former BayStars star Seiichi Uchikawa, who singled in a run.
Miura then summoned Yamasaki out of the bullpen.
“That’s my winning pattern,” Miura said of Ishida and Yamasaki. “So it’s too bad that’s where we lost it.”
There’s usually little reason to worry about a single bad outing by a reliever. Yamasaki’s night, though, probably brought back memories of his struggles last season, when his fall from grace was as quick as it was surprising.
In November 2019, he was on the mound at Tokyo Dome as the national team closer in the Premier12 final. He was favored to also be the Samurai Japan closer during the 2020 Tokyo Olympic baseball tournament, which was scheduled to take place at Yokohama Stadium, his home park.
By the end of the 2020 season, Yamasaki wasn’t even closing for the BayStars. He was sent down to the farm at one point and used as early as the sixth inning in some games. Yamasaki made 40 appearances last season, allowing 26 runs — 24 earned — in 38 innings.
The Olympics didn’t take place as planned, but it’s unlikely Yamasaki would’ve been there anyway.
The 2021 season offered a fresh start, and Yamasaki began on a positive note with a pair of scoreless innings against the Yomiuri Giants in DeNA’s opening series.
When Ishida got into trouble on Tuesday, a charge went through the crowd at Yokohama Stadium when Zombie Nation’s “Kernkraft 400” began playing to herald Yamasaki’s arrival into the game. Restrictions on cheering implemented because of COVID-19 meant that instead of jumping up and down and shouting his name as usual, the crowd could only clap and raise their towels in support.
The excitement dissipated as the Swallows rallied and ultimately won. Shiomi hit a two-seamer that could’ve been located better and Kawabata won by being aggressive.
Miura told reporters afterward he apologized to Yamasaki for inserting him into an unfamiliar situation, as the right-hander is more accustomed to beginning innings than taking the mound during one.
Yamasaki wasn’t the only pitcher in the eighth, but his fan-favorite status and past achievements meant he garnered the lion’s share of attention following the collapse.
It’s far too early to wonder if Miura has a bullpen issue on his hands, but the early returns haven’t been encouraging. Closer Kazuki Mishima gave up a walk-off homer against the Giants on opening day and Ishida gave up a tying single against the Kyojin on Sunday. Ishida and Yamasaki’s combined collapse is now also on the board.
The spotlight — however fairly or unfairly — though, is going to shine on Yamasaki.
Because whether or not he can go on to re-establish himself as one of NPB’s preeminent relievers could have a big impact on how the season plays out in Yokohama.
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