Kodai Senga's condition was an open question coming into the Tokyo Olympics. Whether he would even compete was in doubt after he suffered a severe ankle injury during a game against the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters on April 6.
Senga was not even on the initial Samurai Japan roster, only being added later after other players dropped out with injuries. He's only pitched 8⅓ innings for the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks this season and he allowed 10 runs in the most recent 2⅔ of those.
So while Senga's return to Samurai Japan didn't have the same fanfare that greeted starter Masahiro Tanaka on Monday, it was no less impactful.
Senga, generally regarded as one of NPB's top pitchers, looked like his old self against the U.S. in a two-inning relief appearance in Japan's dramatic 7-6 win at Yokohama Stadium on Monday.
"There wasn't a chance for him to pitch in the first two games, so I had planned to give him a chance if I could," Japan manager Atsunori Inaba said after the game. "I think he pitched really well for two innings. The way he pitched was very Senga-like and I think this can carry over into our next games."
Senga struck out five of the eight batters he faced, allowing one hit and a walk.
"It's been awhile," Senga said. "I've made some small adjustments to what I've been doing and have gotten myself to a place where I feel like I'm ready to compete."
A healthy Senga gives Inaba a major weapon.
Senga is an MLB-caliber pitcher at the height of his powers and if Monday was more than a brief flourish, his presence could be important for Japan going forward.
Senga's fastball topped out at 156 kph (97 mph) on Monday and his "ghost fork" played its usual disappearing act with the U.S. bats. He faced his biggest moment after allowing a one-out double to Triston Casas in the seventh. With a runner in scoring position, Senga struck out Todd Fraizer, a former MLB All-Star, walked the next batter and ended the threat with another strikeout on his forkball.
"The forkball has been a good weapon for me," Senga said. "My fastball and my cutter also really helped me out today. I think those pitches were good for me tonight."
Senga's forkball even caught the attention of the Pitching Ninja Twitter account — which is run by pitching analyst Rob Friedman and has become extremely popular among baseball fans and players alike.
Instead of working with his Hawks teammate and longtime catcher Takuya Kai, Senga formed a productive battery with Ryutaro Umeno on Monday.
"Ume-san and I spoke before the game and he gave me a really good lead to follow," Senga said.
Senga, who led the Pacific League in wins, strikeouts and ERA last season, is usually a starter, but made a quick adjustment to pitching out of the bullpen on Monday.
"I just thought about how to create the right feeling," he said. "The technical part was the same."
Senga's solid showing in his Olympic debut prevented the U.S. from adding to a 6-5 lead. Japan would later tie the game in the ninth and win it on a sayonara single by Kai in the 10th.
Senga has pitched for the national team in the past, most notably during the 2017 World Baseball Classic, when he caught the eye of fans and scouts around the globe. Monday, however, was his Olympic debut. Because he entered the game in a high-pressure situation, he didn't get to savor it very much.
"I couldn't really afford to think about stepping on the mound at the Olympics," Senga said. "We were down by one run and trying to catch up. I was just trying to get into the flow of the game and hold them to zero."
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.