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.

Friday, March 09, 2007

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....

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

The Little Prince

Koshien is the place where stars are born. You don't have to play there to become a legend, but it sure helps. Ask Hideki Matsui, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Yu Darvish, and most recently Yuki Saito. The games at Koshien are Shakespearean. The stage is antiquated and full of ghosts. Koshien Stadium hearkens back to generations past, when there was no television. No internet. It hardly mattered if you were a hero on the grounds of dark brown soil. Ask Sadaharu Oh.

Oh pitched at Koshien, long before anyone dreamed he would be the world's home run king. (Good luck catching him Barry Bonds!) In the Spring Tournament of 1957, Oh led the Waseda Jitsugyo High School team to the finals. Spring is not as prestigious as the big Summer event, but try telling that to a 16, 17, or 18 year old. He had pitched in 4 successive days to reach the big game, but all the while he had been enduring severe blisters on his pitching hand that had cracked and bled throughout the games. The night before the championship game, the young ace lay awake on the tatami at the traditional inn housing the baseball club. His hands were a wreck and he feared he would not be able to take the mound. How would he tell his teammates who had dreamed of this chance since they first picked up a ball?

Just as despair had set in, Oh's father arrived at the inn with a package. Surprised, young Sadaharu greeted him and listened carefully as the Chinese storekeeper who had raised his boy in war torn Tokyo reached into his old cultural heritage and applied Chinese medicine to the blisters. As soon as he had finished he bade his son well and stole off into the night. The next day, Oh endured and led the Waseda boys to the title. That's Koshien.

Many Koshien heroes came and went in the years that followed. All of the modern stars that I mentioned earlier won and lost within the fabric of the historical drama of the setting. None was able to bring Waseda Jitsugyo back to the pinnacle despite the school's long and storied history. None was able to repeat Oh's heroism despite the school's affiliation with Waseda University of the fabled "Tokyo 6 League". None, that is, until Yuki Saito. That's where our story begins.

Yuki Saito, born on June 6th, 1988 in Gunma Prefecture stands a shade over 5'9" and weighs in at 154 pounds. His baseball career began in the first grade of elementary school when he followed his older brother onto the field. His skill grew and it was soon clear that he was a special player in the making. By the time he had reached his final year in junior high school, Yuki Saito was named to the Kanto Regional Tournament's Best 8. Waseda Jitsugyo is a Tokyo school, not in the neighborhood of Gunma, but it hardly mattered. The chance to play in the white and burgundy of Waseda was a dream come true and what better place for a young man than Tokyo? As a freshman, Saito did his duty. He was a newbie on the Jitsugyo club, and performed all manner of chores for his seniors. Talent is one thing. Experience is another.

By the time his second year rolled around, it was inevitable. Yuki Saito's time had come. He was an ace from the start and there was finally promise for Koshien again. The team was well rounded and with a star pitcher on the mound anything was possible. It just never materialized for Waseda in 2005. They did not represent Tokyo in the field of 49 and watched from home as a powerful Komadai Tomakomai club raced to the title behind the pitching of Masahiro Tanaka. It was their 3rd consecutive title after having claimed the championship of the 2004 Summer Tournament and the Spring edition only months earlier.

Saito would have to wait for another chance in the Spring of 2006. He would also have to address some criticism that he was not a team player or a leader. For some time Saito had been building a reputation for being sullen or spiteful when his teammates committed errors behind him. He had become something of a prima donna in the eyes of some, and there was a certain lack of maturity that had to be overcome to fill the leadership qualities worthy of an ace. The 78th edition of the Spring Koshien event was without the 3 time defending champions as the oversight body of the sport ruled that misconduct by a former Komadai player, involved in drinking and smoking, disqualified them from taking the field at the revered Stadium. The door was open for Waseda and a newly humble and mature Yuki Saito.

The tournament went well for the boys from West Tokyo as Saito led the charge to the quarterfinal game by defeating Kansai High School of Okayama Prefecture in a two day marathon that ended at 7-7 on the first day. Jitsugyo managed to squeak past Kansai 4-3 on the eighth day of play, setting up a meeting with the powerful Yokohama club, which once featured ace pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka. Yokohama would trounce Waseda by a score of 13-3. Saito gave his best effort, but grew weary after starting in his third consecutive day. The Yokohama club would go on to win it all by defeating Seiho by a whopping 21-0.

The Summer looked bright. Waseda had made an impressive run in the Spring and with the newfound confidence they had built months earlier the sky was the limit. Saito was focused and determined to reach the final in his last chance at Koshien, and it almost seemed inevitable that Tanaka and Komadai Tomakomai would be there waiting after their disappointment prior to the Spring games. The 88th edition of the Summer Koshien would begin with Waseda Jitsugyo lined up against Tsurusaki Kogyo on Day One. Waseda pounded out a stunning 18 hits on the day to thump the Oiwake Prefecture champs 13-1, giving Jitsugyo the most runs in their history against an opponent at Koshien. Saito was dazzling, pitching 9 innings on 126 pitches with 3 hits, 3walks, and 7 strikeouts. Superpower Osaka Toin waited in the wings.

Despite the presence of otherworldly outfielder/pitcher Sho Nakata, young Saito dominated Osaka going all 9 again with only 1 walk and 12 Ks. The final score of 11-2 sent a message to the rest of the field that Waseda might be the team to beat.

It is also important to note that the Waseda ace was drawing a lot of attention for his mound presence. The pitcher had taken to wiping the sweat from his brow with a small blue handkerchief kept in his back pocket. This gentlemanly act, combined with his boyish good looks and golden arm had both young girls and their middle aged mothers swooning at the sight of him. A star player was being born on the field, and in the legend-making annals of Koshien. This kind of story was exactly what would be remembered in 100 years if he had the stuff to win it all.

In Game 3 against Fukui Shogyo, a four run 6th inning fueled by back to back home runs from outfielder Funabashi and Saito himself did the job. Waseda would go on to win 7-1 behind Saito's 136 pitch complete game. He struck out 7 against 3 walks and set up a meeting with Nichidai High School of Yamagata Prefecture. Despite scoring early in the quarterfinal game, Waseda was not able to extend their 1-0 lead. Nichidai pounced in the 6 inning by scoring two against Saito and looked to be exposing a crack in the young ace's armor. The 2-1 lead held for Nichidai until the bottom of the 8th inning when 5 hits and a hit batsman led to 4 decisive runs. The cool "Handkerchief Prince", as he was now called, did the rest by sitting the club from Yamagata down in the 9th for a dramatic 5-2 victory and the school's first appearance in the semi-final game in 26 years.

The coming out of Yuki Saito began in the 1st inning of the semi-final game against Kagoshima Kogyo and continued until the final out. With all eyes on Masahiro Tanaka to start the tournament, people had quickly shifted their attention to the new face of Koshien. Where Tanaka's superior size, polish, and track record had earned him all the accolades coming in, Yuki Saito had turned heads with his poise, leadership, and razor sharp arsenal. He had shown the Japanese audience that his time had come. He had built on his past failures and learned from them. He had become a master of himself, and in turn his opponents. Even in stretches that his control was occasionally not sharp, he showed the knowhow and the cool to pitch out of trouble and really think on the mound. Where others his age were throwing, Saito was pitching. Kagoshima had no chance, and bowed out meekly, managing only 3 hits and no walks against Waseda, and striking out 13 times. It was the Handkerchief Prince's 5th complete game victory in 14 days. Komadai Tomakomai would face them in the final everyone had been anticipating. Tanaka vs. Saito at last.

Pitching on his 3rd consecutive day, Yuki Saito was about to meet destiny. His failure to come through in the Spring in just such a situation must have been on his mind and his arm must have been exhausted. Still, he had come this far. The ghosts of Koshien fuel these teenagers when the title is on the line. Fatigue is not a factor. The contest felt much like a boxing match between two great heavyweights. Both teams seemed to be playing it conservative to start things off, and no one looked close to breaking through. Tanaka had replaced an ineffective Kikuchi, used to start the game in hopes of giving the ace some rest. Called into duty in the 3rd with runners on, the star pitcher struck out the next two batters to end the inning. Komadai scored first in the top of the 8th inning as the pressure had mounted to a fever pitch and the cheering section from Hokkaido seemed ready to take home it's unprecedented third consecutive Summer title. Waseda was despondent. Only two chances remained to scratch across the tying run against the 3rd year man on the mound. Tanaka was fearsome.

The 2, 3, and 4 hitters were due for Jitsugyo in the bottom of the 8th, and tears were already beginning to well up in the youthful eyes of the underdogs. Had they come this far only to fail, or would their best hitters have enough in them to pull it out? A lead off ground out put further pressure on the Waseda team, and more agony mounted for the helpless young men on the bench. A double by the first baseman kept hope alive and the cheering section from West Tokyo erupted. A hit. All they needed was a hit to stay alive!

A battle ensued between cleanup hitter Goto and Tanaka. Goto put the ball in the air to center and all eyes watched as it fell into the centerfielder's glove. The runner tagged and headed for third, prompting a throw. Had the ball travelled far enough for the tag? How close would the throw be? This could be the last opportunity for Waseda. If he fails....

The throw went over the cutoff man's head and into no man's land on the third base side. The tag turned from a move to third with 2 outs, to a game tying jaunt home. 1-1. The agony that must have shot through Tanaka's body at that moment. The humiliation for the centerfielder. This was a world class ballclub that didn't beat itself on throwing errors in unnecessary situations. What came next was an extra inning marathon that ended at 1-1 after 15 innings. Saito had tossed all 15 on 178 pitches. He'd been sloppy with 7 hits and 6 walks, but had such good action on his slider that 16 strikeouts had kept him out of any real danger. This was the first suspended game in a generation, and both weary clubs would be forced to return the next day to decide the championship. While the fans delighted at this extra baseball, the players must have collapsed in the locker room.

For Saito, the rematch would be his 4th consecutive day pitching. In the 3 prior days, he had thrown 435 pitches over 33 innings. Those innings were spectacular as he had worked a fastball slider combination in the low 90s to the tune of 39 Ks against 11 walks and 15 hits. 33 innings of 3 run baseball were behind the hero of the moment. It would only take one more day to put him in the long line of great stars called "Koshien no Moshigo", or the "Heaven Sent Children of Koshien". Tanaka had the same thing on his mind, having thrown 496 pitches over 3 of the last 4 days. He had struck out 31 batters over 29.2 innings, but was again not the choice to start the penultimate contest. Kikuchi again was asked to start things off, in hopes of saving the marquee man's arm.

In the top of the first, Saito went 1-2-3. Kikuchi's turn. Walk, double, walk, ground ball double play to 3B, run scoring single to center. Enter Tanaka. At Koshien, and perhaps in any major championship, you must always go with your best. If Tanaka couldn't go from the start, why bring him in after 2/3 of an inning. It was costly. Waseda would go on to score again three more times and held a 4-1 lead entering the top of the 9th. Saito was masterful, while the Komadai ace was weary. Three outs to go until the title. A leadoff single to the #2 hitter. Sweat appeared on the brow of Saito. Stay cool. Everyone at Koshien, and everyone sitting at home was on the edge of their seat as the first baseman, Nakasawa, strolled into the batters box. He sent a deep shot to straightaway centerfield that could still be flying, and just like that the score was 4-3. Strikeout. One out. Pop up to second. Two outs. As if the baseball Gods had planned this in advance, up to the plate came Masahiro Tanaka. Komadai's last chance.

Saito was intense, yet displayed a kind of calm beyond his years. Tanaka seemed to be gripping the bat tightly and you could see the nerves on his face. The at bat was never competitive and Saito managed to strike out the three time champion of Koshien, raising his arms high in the air, and crying just a bit. Who could blame him. This storybook run to the title is something that no one will ever forget. He is forever in the same conversation as Daisuke Matsuzaka. He was still popping his fastball at 92-93 at the end of 4 consecutive days of pitching and 553 pitches. Despite the 9th inning 2-run homer, Yuki Saito had mastered the best team in the sport for 3 years running by going 9 innings on 118 pitches, 6 hits, no walks, and 13 strikeouts. Sadaharu Oh, recovering from serious stomach surgery, was beaming as he watched the contest. Waseda Jitsugyo was on top again. Gary Garland of Japanese Baseball Daily noted: Saito's 78 strikeouts is second most all time in summer Koshien annals and his 104 whiffs is also second all time for same year, of both spring and summer, Koshien meetings. The latter figure surpassed Daisuke Matsuzaka and Yutaka Enatsu, which is incredible company. It is indeed.

The story doesn't end there. The media was in a frenzy trying to gather information about the two aces' plans after graduation. Would they turn pro? There was some talk of Saito going to Waseda University. Would they look at the Majors? All those questions would be decided later. There was a trip to the US on the schedule first. The Japanese High School All Stars would be playing a series of exhibitions in the United States against American counterparts as a bit of goodwill between nations. Both Saito and Tanaka would be fronting the team, along with several of their teammates and other Koshien standouts. That trip started on the East Coast where Japan's new prince started Game One against the American East All Stars. He pitched 4 innings on 53 pitches, giving up 4 hits, 1 walk, and striking out 8 in a 5-1 victory.

Although the young players were disappointed in missing the Yankee game that was on the schedule, thanks to rainy weather, they were treated to a tour of Yankee Stadium where they had the chance to meet Hideki Matsui in the home dugout. Each of the young men was in awe, but none moreso than Saito. He had written in his elementary school graduation message that his dream was to one day play for the Yankees, and he now stared that dream in the face. Matsui was kind enough to answer questions, and Saito asked him about the Major League lifestyle. Matsui answered with a number of pointers about training and diet, and talked some about the challenges of living in a different culture everyday. Travel was also a big topic, as the US is much larger and spread out than Japan. Saito was beside himself. He also enjoyed visiting Cooperstown and the Baseball Hall of Fame before departing for California, and he took in the WBC display featuring Matsuzaka's MVP jersey and memorabilia.

The trip continued on the West Coast, where the young men manages to take in an Angels game successfully, and Saito pitched twice against West All Stars. In the first game, he went 3+ on 52 pitches, but was victimized by 5 hits and 2 walks, including a home run. The game ended in a 6-6 tie, but the outing was a bomb for Waseda's hero. Two days later, in his final appearance in the US, Saito got his revenge by going 5 strong with only 3 hits and no walks. His 8 strikeouts brought his 3 game total to 20 in only 12 innings pitched. Saying farewell to North America, Saito is said to have found a newfound perspective on his future. Many believe he made up his mind to test the Major League waters after his time in the States, and learned that he had a lot of work to do to increase his size and power, and refine his arsenal. That decision would not be made public for some time.

In Japan, Saito returned a hero. His idol status had grown beyond all previous expectations, and there was a gaggle of cameras following him everywhere he went. Ceremonies were held in Tokyo to commemorate the team's success in America, and Waseda Jitsugyo continued to be feted as national heroes. Masahiro Tanaka announced his intention to enter the professional draft, while Saito made it clear that Waseda University was his next destination. The Tokyo Giants, among others, had coveted him and a mad scramble was on to secure the rights to draft Tanaka in his stead. Some scouts still felt that the Hokkaido hero was the better pitcher, with the brighter future, but there was no denying the kind of excitement that was now surrounding Yuki Saito.

The final high school competition of both players' careers was the National Athletic Competition in Hyogo Prefecture. As fate would have it, the two teams fought through a tough field of rivals to meet once again in the championship game. Waseda again was crowned champion at the expense of Tanaka and Komadai Tomakomai, 1-0. Saito gave up 9 hits to Tanaka's 4, but drove in the game's only run himself in the 4th. From that point forward the fates of these two players would diverge. Tanaka was drafted by the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles. Saito was off to the Tokyo Big 6 League and Waseda University. At this date, Tanaka looks to be the #2 starter for Rakuten come opening day and is being marketed as the face of the fledgling franchise.

Saito is going to be the opening day starter for Waseda as a freshman. In a society which places so much importance on seniority, this is almost unprecedented. He was recently sighted throwing a 295 pitch bullpen session in Okinawa while training for the upcoming university season. The Tokyo 6 games will be televised for the first time ever on NTV thanks to the popularity of Yuki Saito. Where he goes from here is a mystery, but with a little better size and some maturation and refinement, the Majors is not a difficult stretch of the imagination upon his graduation in 2011. At 23 he could put himself in a position to be the first ever Japanese player to enter the Majors at such a young age, and could begin a new era for others like him with big dreams. Yuki Saito Watch is here to bring you the blow by blow coverage of this exciting young pitcher's career. With any luck you will be able to say you saw him here first. Come back again soon. Waseda U. begins their season on March 17th and I'll have coverage of every pitch.