The “monster” finally made landfall on May 16.
Pitcher Roki Sasaki was Japan’s most-hyped rookie in some time when the Chiba Lotte Marines won his rights in the 2019 draft. He didn’t pitch on the top team in 2020, but that didn’t slow the swell of anticipation among baseball fans.
Sasaki was already a known commodity among those who follow high school baseball and NPB draft prospects when he burst into the national consciousness after a scout reportedly clocked his fastball at 163 kph (101 mph) in 2019. The right-hander also showed great velocity in his high school contests, hitting 160 kph during Iwate Prefecture’s summer tournament that same year. When Ofunato High School opted to sit him for the final of that tournament rather than risk his arm, it made national news programs that night. Fans marveled at his potential, MLB teams took notice and Sasaki’s seemingly prodigious talent led to him being dubbed “Reiwa’s Monster.”
When Sasaki finally took the ball for his NPB debut Sunday, it was the wind blowing in from the sea that made the flags flutter at Zozo Marine Stadium, but it could have just as easily been the hype swirling around the 19-year old on the mound.
In a TV drama, Sasaki might have started his career by dominating the Seibu Lions. This is reality, though, and Gakuto Wakabayashi laced Sasaki’s very first pitch into left field for a single. The game was a mixed bag for Sasaki after that, but he had a decent first outing.
“There were some good points and some bad points,” Sasaki was quoted as saying by Sports Hochi.
Sasaki gave up four runs — two earned — in five innings. His fastball stayed around the low 150s and topped out at 154. While his slider could’ve been sharper, it was not bad.
He also mixed in a forkball, using a particularly nasty pitch to strike out Wakabayashi in the fourth and freezing Hotaka Yamakawa with one that dropped into the top of the strike zone in the fifth.
Sasaki struck out five overall — he got Yamakawa swinging on a forkball for his first — while also allowing six hits and walking two. He was in line for the win until the Lions rallied against the Lotte bullpen in the eighth.
There was a lot to like from Sasaki’s debut, including his overall composure on the mound.
“I think it was a good experience,” he told the media after the game. “I want to make some adjustments for next time.”
Marines fans should largely be encouraged. Sasaki never let the game get away. He pitched himself into a slight jam early on and calmly worked his way out of trouble. He was also able to keep his wits when the Lions put up three runs in the fourth.
His fastball played well and his secondary pitches should improve over time.
The Lions’ baserunners were able to time his delivery and get good jumps that led to five stolen bases in five attempts, something the young pitcher will have to work on. He also stumbled on some of the occasions he tried to go inside against a left-handed batter.
The talent is there. The next step is for the Marines to harness it and for Sasaki to use it effectively. He’ll get a chance to make some adjustments as the Marines sent him down to the farm team on Monday.
Sasaki wasn’t the only notable rookie on the mound Sunday.
The Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles’ Takahisa Hayakawa was in action against the Orix Buffaloes in Osaka and tossed his first career shutout. Hayakawa only needed 98 pitches to shut down the Buffaloes.
“I went out there today just hoping to be able to contribute to the team,” Hayakawa said.
Rakuten was 2-2-1 last week and finished tied with the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks atop the Pacific League. The Hawks rallied for a tie with the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters on Sunday and were 2-1-2 last week. The Marines, the PL’s third place team, finished with a win, a loss and three ties.
Elsewhere around the league last week, the Buffaloes were 3-2, the Lions finished 1-1-3 and the last-place Fighters were 1-3-1.
In the Central League, the first-place Hanshin Tigers widened the gap between them and the second-place Yomiuri Giants to 4½ games by winning two of three in their series over the weekend. Hanshin finished last week 3-1-1.
The Giants were 2-2-1 in a week they played without ace Tomoyuki Sugano, who was taken off the roster on May 8 with elbow discomfort, and shortstop Hayato Sakamoto, who injured his hand on May 9.
Among other CL teams, the Tokyo Yakult Swallows went 2-0-2 last week, the Hiroshima Carp were 1-0-2 the Chunichi Dragons finished 0-3-2 and, bringing up the rear, the Yokohama DeNA BayStars were 0-2-2.
A pair of gems
Swallows ace Yasuhiro Ogawa had everything working on Saturday as he held down the Chunichi Dragons in a 99-pitch shutout.
A shutout that takes fewer than 100 pitches is a “Maddux” in baseball lexicon — so named because Hall of Famer Greg Maddux, who retired in 2008, did it more than any other pitcher of his era or since.
Ogawa’s outing was the first Maddux in NPB since then-Orix pitcher Chihiro Kaneko tossed a 92-pitch gem against the Hawks in 2017.
It didn’t take long for Japan to register another this time, as Eagles rookie Takahisa Hayakawa shut out the Buffaloes on 98 pitches the very next day.
Giants outfielder Zelous Wheeler’s hitting streak made it through another week intact. The American extended his run to 20 straight games with at least one hit with a single in the sixth inning against the Tigers on Sunday.
The last Yomiuri player with a 20-game hitting streak was Shinnosuke Abe in 2016.
Have we met?
The Giants and Tigers played the 2,000th game of NPB’s most storied rivalry on Saturday at Tokyo Dome.
The Giants survived a bases-loaded jam in the ninth to pull out a 5-3 win and improve to 1,094-835-71 in the series, which began July 15, 1936. Hanshin picked up the win in game No. 2,001 on Sunday.
The teams have met nine times this season, with Hanshin holding a 5-4 advantage.
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