Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Debut, at last.

Since my last entry we've seen a few new wrinkles in the Yuki Saito story emerge. Camp in Okinawa wrapped with the young ace completing his mandatory 1000 pitches in 6 days. By the end of training camp, manager Atsuyoshi Otake was finally satisfied that Saito had regained his balance and form and everyone was looking forward to the practice games at Waseda's West Tokyo grounds. Our hero was confirmed as the Opening Day starter against Tokyo University. The game will be telecast in part for broadcast viewers of Nippon Television, and in its entirety for those with the appropriate cable packages. Fortunately, I'm one of those people.

Being the opening day starter, as I have mentioned in the past, is a tremendous honor for a freshman. Only those with "no doubt" talent are afforded such a place on a Japanese roster. Generally speaking, even the most highly touted players are required to take their place in line and sit the bench for a year in deference to their seniors on the club. In every generation there are a few exceptions and we are privileged to be watching one of those rare talents in Saito.

On the 14th of March, Waseda played an intrasquad game pitting the famous first year man against many of the more experienced players on the roster. Saito did not disappoint as he went 3 full innings giving up a single hit, no walks, no runs, and 2 strikeouts. The pitcher later commented that he was about 60-70% of where he wanted to be, and he felt good that he was able to keep the ball down during the exhibition. There was more than a practice game in the air in West Tokyo during this period of time, however, and a lot of people were preoccupied with a brewing scandal around the ballclub.

In Japan, the amateur draft is not on the up and up, so to speak. For many years, professional owners and administrations have been paying amateur players under the table in a manner not all that different than the typical NCAA rules violations that see universities facing major suspensions and penalties every year. This recruiting is a problem because the structure of the draft allows amateur players some leeway in their final destination. By paying promising young players in junior high school, high school, university, and the industrial leagues, professional teams insider deals can be cut to secure top talent before the time comes for the player to be eligible to sign. Many current American GMs and managers in Japan have fought hard to change the system to resemble the US draft. Only by doing so can Japanese baseball avoid the seedy and corrupt payments like the ones I just mentioned. This relates to Waseda directly, as an outfielder on the club was found to have taken money from the Seibu Lions in order for preferential considerations come draft day. An industrial league player for Tokyo Gas was also caught in the act. In the end, Waseda was cleared of any wrongdoing and the player was dismissed from school. You might imagine that the great excitement, not to mention the financial windfall, of Yuki Saito's appearance in the Tokyo Big 6 League was in danger and a lot of people were up in arms about this.

The effect of this scandal may not be immediately realized, but it certainly influenced the March 21st game between Waseda and Chuo University. Security was everywhere as young Yuki Saito took the mound for the first time in his Waseda uniform. Media was banned from the grounds, as were fans. The only outsiders allowed to enter the grounds to observe the ballgame were scouts. The long arm of scandal is enough of a concern that people around the team are going to be extra cautious to avoid jeopardizing the season, and subjecting their players (read: Saito) from having to answer questions about the controversy.

As for the game action, Saito was impressive. He was on a 5 inning or 100 pitch limit, and managed to go the full 5, allowing 4 hits, no walks, and no runs, fanning 5. All that was accomplished on 75 pitches. In the 2nd inning, with one out in the books, Takeshi Mima touched the right hander for a double, putting him in a jam. Observers note the cool that the young pitcher displayed in approaching a very tough hitter named Tanaka, who had deposited a ball deep into the stands of last season's West Tokyo Tournament. It is reported that Saito absolutely blew him away on some serious heat. The next batter was also a strikeout victim, and the brief threat was erased just like that. The very next inning saw a lead off double against the 18 year old pitcher, once again putting him in a tough spot. Before long the threat was again nullified as Waseda catcher Izumi fielded a bunt attempt and fired to third nailing the baserunner for the 1st out. Saito induced a ground ball in the next at bat that ended the inning on a slick double play by the Waseda middle infield. Waseda had managed a 3-0 lead against Chuo behind Saito's strong pitching and some timely hitting in the 2nd and the 5th. As soon as the 5 inning outing was complete, Waseda's relief core gave up the game allowing a run in the 6th and 5 more in the 8th. The final score was 6-5 Chuo.

One final note on this start. Saito took the mound wearing the number 16. Some high profile alumni of the program have worn 16 over the years including former Nippon Ham player Nobuaki Arai, current Yakult Swallows starter Shugo Fujii, current Fuji Television announcer Kenichiro Sakurai, and current Yomiuri Giants rookie pitcher Daisuke Ochi, the #4 pick in the 2006 draft.


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