CoronationIt's been a little while since I gave you the last update on the training season of our young hero, Yuki Saito. The warm up sessions and practice games are not covered in nearly as much detail by the Japanese press as the real affairs, so I decided to hold off on the remainder of the training news until the big debut of the freshman right-hander on the Waseda mound. Details of those practice games have been generally limited to a very basic recap of the final score, Saito's runs allowed, innings pitched, and strikeouts. A few quotes about how talented and poised he is, have been standard fare in the coverage, and nothing groundbreaking has emerged. In the 7 games and 21 innings that Saito pitched against a combination of second tier universities and corporate teams, he allowed a total of 4 runs for an outstanding 1.71 ERA. Would he be handed the honor of an opening day start? Even Saito didn't know until the last minute.
It was announced on game day that the first game would belong to the young Koshien hero, while the 2nd start would be given to fellow freshman Yuya Fukui. The Yuki Saito era would begin on April 14th, 2007 at Jingu Stadium versus the club from Tokyo University. The "Todai" players had been anxious to get at Saito, looking to welcome him rudely to another level of competition. It is somewhat unseemly in Japan for attention to be lavished upon a person of little experience or accomplishment, based solely on promise, and you often see a kind of bullying or hazing given to such individuals. The Waseda club has been very good to Saito, aside from the typical freshman duties like retrieving foul balls, carrying bags, and cleaning up after his seniors. The Tokyo University students had every reason to be more harsh with the young ace, and settled on welcoming him with a good old fashioned knock around from the plate.
With great anticipation, Saito took the mound in his shining white Waseda home uniform, burgundy #16 on the back, no name. It was apparent that he'd matured in the months since retiring from his high school club, and his physique showed some development, as well as a wiser look in his eyes. I believe the level of coaching he's receiving at Waseda is going to serve him very well over the next few years to turn him from a prodigy to a legitimate world class pitcher. He still appears a bit slim, and a bit young, but there has been an evolution over the last few months.
As it happens, I was watching the NHK broadcast of Kei Igawa's second start for the New York Yankees against the Athletics in Oakland, as the university contest was underway, and it was striking to change between the games and compare the size of the athletes. The professionals in the Major Leagues appeared monstrous when juxtaposed with the slightly built university students in the Tokyo Big Six League. It was immediately apparent that whatever value there is in following Saito's starts closely will have to be tempered with the knowledge that the competition is largely overmatched. Even American university students show far greater size and power than the amateurs of the Japanese university circuit. Nonetheless, you can only face the competition that's in front of you, and there's a lot to observe about the style of pitching that Saito develops and the ability to develop and grow while attempting to dominate another level of talent. If he were to get knocked around by the Tokyo boys, I suppose it would say a lot about how far he has to go, but if he dominates.....more speculation.
Saito opened the game versus Tokyo's Ijiri, throwing a 140kph (87mph) fastball, which was fouled off. With the very next pitch, a 134kph (83mph) change, Saito induced Ijiri to line out. One away. Second batter, Morimoto, struck out looking on a 143kph (89mph) fastball on the outside part of the plate, and the third batter, Iwama, grounded out to short for an easy 1-2-3 inning to start the game. So much for the rude welcome.
Waseda's offense provided their freshman sensation with 2 runs in the bottom of the 1st, a kind of welcome present. It would hold up as Saito got 4th batter Yamada to fly out to center and caught both #5 Takahashi and #6 Maeshiro for back-to-back strikeouts to preserve his unblemished debut. (In the bottom of the inning, Saito would also deliver his first hit, an infield single to third, but would be left stranded.)
7th batter, Otsubo, grounded to short. #8, Hamada, flew out to right #9, Shigenobu, was victimized by a 142kph (88mph) fastball, becoming the first swinging K for Saito from the Jingu mound. Again, 1-2-3.
3 more Waseda runs crossed the plate in the bottom of the 3rd, allowing the new prince of Waseda to cruise with a lot less pressure. 5-0 is a very nice lead for a player as gifted as Saito, and he'd already made his first pass through the order without a single baserunner. The 4th inning would see the top of the order back for another try at his effective array of fastballs, slider, curves, and change ups. Everything seemed to be working so far, and the combination of locations and speeds had the overmatched Tokyo hitters dizzy. Ijiri put the ball in play again, flying out to center. Morimoto struck out looking for the second time on the day. Iwama became strikeout casualty number six, swinging through a Saito offering, and the perfect game through four began to buzz around the stadium.
Yamada popped out to short. Takahashi went down looking at an 88mph fastball. Maeshiro grounded out to second. 15 up, 15 down. Perfect through 5!
Waseda all but wrapped up the game with 3 more runs in the bottom of the 5th, giving an 8-0 lead to their dominating first year man. He was perfect and looked to extend the string of outs against the bottom of the Tokyo order. #7 batter, Otsubo, had grounded to short in his previous at bat in the 3rd inning, but drove a pitch up in the zone deep to right field and off the wall for a stand up double. The perfect game and no hitter were over, but the point had been made. Tokyo's lust to knock Saito down a peg or two had been reduced to the simple satisfaction of avoiding the humiliation of being blanked by the young star. Would Saito manage to hold the shutout? Hamada grounded out to short, holding the man at second base. Pinch hitter, Oshima, flew out to shallow center, unable to advance the runner to third. Ijiri had his third crack at Saito, having made solid contact the first two times at the plate. It was not to be on this day, as Saito reared back and struck out the leadoff man, swinging.
That would be all for the freshman, as the 8-0 lead allowed the Waseda relief core to mop up what was left of the Tokyo University roster. The score remained 8-0 until the last pitch, and Saito won his debut, a historic event indeed. The final line for Saito was:
Not a bad debut. It occurs to me that Saito would have been the top pick of the amateur draft in all likelihood, #2 at worst behind Masahiro Tanaka. He would be pitching against Seibu, SoftBank, Yomiuri, and Chunichi at this point had he entered the draft. Tokyo University and the other members of the Tokyo Big Six League are going to be facing a player capable of being a lights out professional starter right now, so many of the games he starts may look very similar. It's not to say that he won't have a poor outing, and that he won't be beaten, but the chances of knocking off Waseda when the newly crowned prince is on the mound seem to be waning with each bullpen session and each successful test against live game competition. Come back for more, as our subject continues his march through the amateur ranks....