In 2019, Carter Stewart Jr. became a one-of-a-kind Japanese pro baseball player. On Sunday he looked like he is poised to join the ranks of Japan’s other top pitchers, striking out nine in five hitless innings in his first start against the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters.
The eighth overall pick in Major League Baseball’s 2018 June draft, Stewart refused to sign with the Atlanta Braves and did what no other marquee American amateur had done, turn pro in Japan.
After signing a six-year deal with the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks in 2019 that netted him a reported $7 million — far more than he likely could have earned in the United States over his first six seasons — Stewart made his first-team debut as a reliever this summer.
In four first-team relief appearances, the 198-centimeter Stewart had allowed six runs in 5⅓ innings.
“I’ve built myself up as a starter ever since I got to Japan,” Stewart told the team’s broadcaster, cable channel Sportslive-plus.
“Relieving was an opportunity and I’m glad I got that opportunity to see a lot of these batters and learn the ichi-gun (first-team) style, but generally I’m a starter and being able to settle into the game and go at my own pace is what I’ve built up to and what I’m used to.”
Doing what he is used to, Stewart — who started on short notice due to veteran lefty Tsuyoshi Wada’s injury — brushed the elbow guard of the first batter he faced, sending him to first as a hit batsman, but retired the next 15 batters.
Stewart gave up a couple of hot shots, and novice outfielder Kenta Tanigawara saved him from allowing a leadoff extra-base hit in the fourth inning. But otherwise Stewart — who made batters swing under his fastball and over his slider and curve — looked like the pitcher who had overpowered batters for the Hawks’ Western League farm team.
Five Hawks relievers worked to preserve the scoreless draw.
“I was happy to get the first start under my belt,” Stewart said. “It came in a tough situation with Wada getting hurt, (with) not a lot of time but I went out and did the best I could.”
“It got a little bit unlucky (with the hit batter). Overall, getting that first out was really big for me and I was able to cruise from there on.”
In 10 minor league games this season, Stewart posted a 6-0 record with a 1.47 ERA, while striking out 51 batters and walking 19 over 49 innings.
It remains to be seen when Stewart will get another shot. Teams in Japan typically send youngsters back down after a big debut to take the measure of things.
“I don’t know when that (next start) is going to be,” Stewart said after the game. “I’ll prepare for my next start and hopefully that will go as well if not better.”
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