Wish they all could be Okinawa girls.The much anticipated career of Yuki Saito has begun at Waseda University, with a series of events opening the month of March. Now that you're caught up on the background of his pitching legend, it's time for the here and now. My quick rundown of what has transpired, with an assist from Nikkan Sports.
Saito met his new teammates and began to work on some light pitching exercises with the coaches at Waseda. It was clear that he wasn't in game shape as his control was way off. During his bullpen session, facing live hitters, he managed to walk five on the 25th of February and generally missed the strikezone. His coaches stressed the need to regain control by repeating form and recapturing his good balance. His second session went a bit better, although far from perfect, and it's said that he hit 143 kph(89 mph) on the radar gun during the workout. He allowed three hits and walked one facing 7 batters. Following that warm up, it was time to get ready for two weeks of running and hellacious throwing at training camp in sunny and beautiful Okinawa.
Saito arrived at Urazoe Airport in Okinawa to a throng of 300 cheering fans anxious to get cell phone photographs of the Koshien star. The Handkerchief Prince was more than happy to oblige, although he looked as shocked at the attention then as he did when the frenzy began all those months ago. Perhaps it was the nerves that got to him, considering the heavy workload and harsh training that freshman must endure at Japanese training camp, sometimes called "survival camp". At any rate, he took it all in stride and prepared to enjoy a day at the Yakult Swallows camp with his teammates. A kind of gesture that many pro clubs make to their younger counterparts. A courtesy if you will.
On March 4th, Saito and the Waseda baseball club made their appearance at Yakult camp. The previous day saw a normal 22 Japanese reporters covering the goings on, but "Koshien's Heaven Sent Child" drew a total of 65 reporters and 600+ fans, who gathered by the side of the field where he was located. Security had to cordon off the scene with rope to make sure the enthusiastic gatherers were not a danger to themselves or others. Yakult star Norichika Aoki is an alumn of Waseda University and the current players were thrilled to see their senior in action. Many of the players remarked at the size and strength of the professional athletes and understood the work that lie ahead to achieve their full potential. For the pitchers, it means 1000 pitches over the course of 6 days. Yes, that's for everyone. In preparation for that grueling task, the Waseda players took to a local "peace park" and picked flowers while giving thanks for the chance to play baseball as a young man. It is a ritual of renewal that has some roots in old tradition, I believe.
Then, later that day, it was time for pain.
Saito hit his first bullpen session of "survival camp" in the morning and managed to get in a little light work. 295 pitches of light work. Actually, the 295 pitches were thrown over the course of a little more than one hour, at 100% strength. It was reported that Saito gave a good effort, face reddening by the last 100 pitches, and managed to show his great power and endurance, wiping the pouring sweat from his brow every so often. On the very next day, Saito hit the pen again for a 256 pitch outing. His form was breaking down as he pitched and his coach stood behind him to observe more carefully after about 180 pitches. It was decided that he needed to work on his arm angle and the position of his bent knee as he threw, and later Saito admitted that he has been extremely tense since entering university. That he could see that more clearly after working with his coach on the 5th, was a very good thing, he said.
On the 6th, it was a day of rest for those pitchers who had thrown heavily during the opening days of camp. Saito was instructed to do image training, concentrating on his form and delivery. His coach discussed the player he saw at Koshien and in the National High School Athletic Competition and hoped to help Saito find the focus and the flow that he had during the intensity of those games. The day off and the reflection seemed to have a good effect on the young pitcher as he worked 277 pitched on the 7th, with a lot more confidence and a much better form. The follow up session of 153 pitches on Thursday brought the grand total to 981 pitches in just 5 days. His balance and timing were off a bit again, and both coach and player hope to have things ironed out more before the Tokyo Big 6 season begins. We'll keep you posted....