There were two 2021 debuts that merited attention in NPB on Saturday.
One was the return of Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles pitcher Masahiro Tanaka, who stepped back on an NPB mound for the first time since 2013. The other was a relief appearance by Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks pitcher Carter Stewart Jr. against the Seibu Lions at MetLife Dome in Tokorozawa, Saitama Prefecture.
Tanaka garnered most of the headlines, but Stewart’s first steps in NPB could have a greater impact in the long run.
Stewart was called upon to mop up in the ninth inning of the Hawks’ 7-1 win over the Lions. He threw 19 pitches, walked the first batter he faced, struck out two and topped out at 153 kph (95 mph) in a scoreless inning.
Stewart’s day wasn’t groundbreaking, but his career path might be.
The 21-year-old American was supposed to be in the Atlanta Braves’ organization. He was one of the top prospects in baseball in 2018 and was taken at No. 8 in the MLB draft. The Braves, however, offered him a contract lower than what No. 8 picks usually get, citing a wrist injury as the reason. Stewart and his agent rejected the low offer and, in a bold and unprecedented move, Stewart signed with the Hawks in 2019.
"With the timing, the way everything happened back in the States with me, everything just came together and gave me an opportunity to do something overseas and do something groundbreaking," Stewart told Kyodo News in April last year.
"I really like trying new things and going down paths people haven't done before."
After pitching on two levels of SoftBank’s farm system the last two years, Stewart got his first call-up last week and could get an extended chance to play with the top team. He's got good speed on his fastball and a solid curveball and change-up that could help him find success with SoftBank.
If Stewart’s gambit works out, his decision to come to Japan could be a game-changer.
With a deal reportedly worth around $7 million — NPB teams don’t release salary figures — he’s already making more than he would have if the Braves had offered him a regular deal and also more than some players drafted ahead of him. He could also be free to sign with an MLB team as a free agent after the 2025 season and be young enough to garner a lengthy and well-paying deal.
Playing in NPB would also pit him against a higher level of competition than in the North American minor leagues, which could also have a positive impact — if he’s good — when it’s time to negotiate another contract.
If Stewart plays well and parlays his move into a lucrative MLB contract — or maybe even a big NPB deal — while still at a young age, it’s not out of the question others could follow. It would at least give players move leverage at the negotiating table if MLB continues down the road of trying to suppress what draft picks can make.
Not to mention the impact of NPB clubs possibly gaining the services of a few top prospects willing to make the move in search of more money and the chance to develop against better competition.
In all, Stewart’s move could have ripple effects for years to come.
The game Stewart debuted in on Saturday was the middle contest of the series and a rout that saw Yurisbel Gracial homer for the second straight game and pitcher Rei Takahashi notch his first win of the year. Seibu, however, won the opener behind a strong performance from starter Kona Takahashi and a home run by catcher Tomoya Mori.
The clubs met again Sunday and played to a 4-4 tie after a two-run home run by the Hawks’ Akira Nakamura in the ninth.
The Hawks were 3-2-1 last week, while the Lions were 2-2-1.
The Eagles lost to the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters in Tanaka’s debut at Tokyo Dome — Tanaka allowed three runs in five innings — but beat Nippon Ham in the series opener Friday and in the finale Sunday. Starting pitchers Hideaki Wakui (Friday) and rookie Takahisa Hayakawa (Sunday) each delivered a solid start for Rakuten, which ended the week in a tie for first place in the Pacific League with SoftBank.
Rakuten won two, lost three and tied one last week.
Elsewhere around the PL, the Chiba Lotte Marines won on Sunday to finish last week without a loss at 4-0-2. The Orix Buffaloes were 1-4-1, and the Fighters were 2-4.
In the Central League, things are not going well for first-year manager Daisuke Miura and the DeNA BayStars. The club was already off to a slow start before losing five of six games last week. The BayStars haven’t actually won a game since April 8, but at least salvaged a poor week by rallying for a 2-2 tie against the Yomiuri Giants on Sunday.
Putting up runs was an issue last week, with DeNA scoring two or fewer runs in five games. If there is a bright spot anywhere, it may be that Tyler Austin and Neftali Soto are back after having their entry to Japan delayed by coronavirus-related travel restrictions. They're still working their way back, but Soto hit a solo homer on Sunday and Austin drove in the team’s other run.
At the other end of the standings, the first-place Hanshin Tigers are roaring after winning all four of their games last week. The Tigers are scoring runs, but their pitching staff has also stepped up.
Starters Yuki Nishi, Takumi Akiyama, Shintaro Fujinami and Joe Gunkel combined to allow one run over 26⅔ innings in four games last week. Fujinami even did some extra lifting on Friday, hitting a two-run home run to account for the only runs in a 2-0 win over the Tokyo Yakult Swallows. The club is currently on a seven-game win streak and has NPB’s best record at 15-4.
Elsewhere around the CL, the second-place Giants won their first five games last week before coughing up a late lead in Sunday’s tie with the BayStars, while the Swallows swept the BayStars before dropping two against Hanshin over the weekend. The Hiroshima Carp were 2-3 and the Chunichi Dragons finished 1-5.
Home sweet dome
The Fighters traded Sapporo Dome for Tokyo Dome for a home series over the weekend and found their one-time home to be quite hitter friendly. After hitting just two home runs in 17 games to start the year, the Fighters hit four at Tokyo Dome.
Sho Nakata hit a pair on Saturday and Kazunari Ishii also went deep. On Sunday, Kensuke Kondo sent a ball over the wall, while Chusei Manami just missed going deep in a couple of at-bats.
Bring it on
Lions pitcher Kona Takahashi may actually be one of the few players happy to see the Hawks on the schedule.
Takahashi faced the defending PL and Japan Series champions at MetLife Dome on Friday and threw seven innings of one-run ball in a 2-1 Seibu win.
Takahashi has now won eight straight decisions against the Hawks. Since losing to SoftBank on April 21, 2019, Takahashi is 8-0 with a 3.17 ERA in 11 starts against the Hawks.
Put one on the board
Ryosuke Kikuchi led off the Carp's game against the Dragons on Friday with a home run to end a frustrating streak for the CL club.
Before Kikuchi's homer, which was the 100th of his career, the Carp had been shut out in three straight games and were in the midst of a 31-inning scoreless streak.
Kikuchi's hit led to a big night at the plate for Hiroshima, which went on to beat Chunichi 7-3.
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