Steady development created ‘monster of Reiwa era’

Professional batters had a hard time hitting the ball in play. No one could imagine seeing such spectacle. His pitching continues to be more than spectacular — it’s jaw-dropping.

In a game against the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters on April 17, pitcher Roki Sasaki of the Chiba Lotte Marines was perfect through eight innings, meaning that not a single batter reached base. This came on the heels of his previous start on April 10 against the Orix Buffaloes, throwing the first perfect game in Nippon Professional Baseball in 28 years.

Including his start on April 3, he has now retired 52 batters in a row. How far will his record go? There is no end to the talk about this pitcher.

From his dynamic windup with a high left leg kick, Sasaki throws fastballs over 160 kph. His forkball also travels in the high 140s kph, and batters say, “The ball disappears.” Furthermore, he has excellent control so almost never gives up walks.

In his last two games alone, he has racked up 33 strikeouts. His pitching is from another dimension — there’s no other way to describe it. Not to be overlooked is how well his batterymate, rookie catcher Ko Matsukawa, fresh from high school, has called the games.

Tickets for the game on April 17 were sold out, and commercial TV stations broadcast the game live. “Roki fever” will surely be a catalyst in revitalizing professional baseball, which has been suffering during the novel coronavirus pandemic with games held without spectators or with limited attendance.

The success of Sasaki, who lost his father and grandparents in the Great East Japan Earthquake, should also encourage people in those affected areas.

He attracted attention when he was a student at Iwate prefectural Ofunato High School, with a fastball recorded at 163 kph. In the final of the summer prefectural tournament during his final year when his team was competing to reach the National High School Baseball Championships at Koshien Stadium, his skipper did not put him in the game to avoid Sasaki suffering an injury, a situation that sparked controversy.

In the 2019 NPB draft, Sasaki was picked by four teams in the first round, and Lotte won the lottery to gain the right to negotiate with him. In his first year as a pro, Sasaki did not pitch in any official games as the team sought to avoid putting strain on his developing frame, so he worked steadily to strengthen his body.

His efforts and talent blossomed all at once. The team took its time in nurturing Sasaki, which likely led the “monster of the Reiwa era” to take a tremendous leap forward.

In the April 17 game, Lotte skipper Tadahito Iguchi replaced Sasaki, in the midst of a perfect game, after 102 pitches. After the game, Iguchi said, “Thinking about his future, he was at his limit.”

Many fans must have hoped for a second consecutive perfect game, but it was an understandable decision considering the burden on Sasaki, who is only 20 years old.

In the sports world, talented youngsters continue to emerge. A well-planned approach to training them with an eye on their future will extend their longevity and, in turn, help them live up to the expectations of fans and people around them.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, April 19, 2022)