There is intent and there is common sense.
The issue for Seibu Lions pitcher Takeru Sasaki is there was none of either on Friday night at MetLife Dome.
The second start of Sasaki’s career came to an abrupt end after just three pitches against the Orix Buffaloes. Sasaki’s first two pitches of the night were uneventful, but the third glanced off leadoff man Shuhei Fukuda’s helmet.
That got Sasaki, 25, tossed from the game for throwing a dangerous pitch. He was in the contest for less than two minutes and went into the record books for the fewest pitches thrown before being ejected for a dangerous pitch. If he had any family or friends coming to watch him play, hopefully they made it to their seats early.
“I’m just filled with sorrow for Fukuda-san,” Sasaki told Tokyo Sports. “To the rest of our team and the fans, I’m sorry I had to suddenly leave the mound like that.”
The question is, was it at all necessary?
Fukuda, for his part, turned and let the umpire know the ball hit his helmet — even patting his head for emphasis — and jogged down to first base no worse for wear. There was no animosity and the benches did not clear. The only disruption to the game was the time it took for the umpire to toss Sasaki, who looked confused initially, and for the Lions to get a new pitcher up.
This is not a new story in NPB. If a pitch is deemed to be dangerous, which is to say it hit the batter in the head, an ejection comes next, no matter the surrounding circumstances.
Ejecting players in cases like this — when there are no warnings issued and seemingly zero intent — is excessive. It’s not going to deter anyone mostly because there are not any pitchers trying to hit batters in the head.
You can’t legislate accidents out of the game.
Sasaki was playing in the fourth game of his career. Imagine if it was his debut. A somewhat similar case happened in 2003 and involved the Yomiuri Giants’ Gary Rath.
Rath’s parents had come from the U.S. for a short visit and were in the crowd to watch their son pitch for the only time during the trip. Like Sasaki, Rath hit a batter in the head early in the game with a pitch that had seemingly no intent and did no damage. The black and white nature of the rule, though, meant he was ejected and his parents only got to see him pitch for a short time.
Any pitch that hits a batter around the head or neck is going to get a pitcher tossed from the game. The umpires do not have to think or use any judgement or reasoning. If one of the laces on the ball grazes a batter’s helmet, the pitcher is getting run.
Meaning someone who has a ball slip out of his hand faces the same immediate punishment as one who is obviously head-hunting.
There is a gray area, NPB just refuses to see it — there was a time, before the umpiring crews were mixed, that Pacific League umps would sometimes err on the side of rationality.
The umpires could just get together, access the situation and make a ruling — in this case it would have been easy.
Basically, there is room for nuance. Not to mention that if a pitcher throws a dangerous pitch that looks like it did real damage, it’s highly likely neither he, nor his team, would want him to keep pitching anyway.
In a case like Sasaki’s, there was no ill intent, Fukuda was fine and no one seemed interested in fighting. The game should have just kept going.
The dangerous pitch rule needs to have a little nuance and perhaps Sasaki’s case can inspire a round of conversation.
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