Thursday’s game between Japan and Australia was a showcase for Roki Sasaki, and an illustration of the difference between good fastballs and fast fastballs.
With Roki Sasaki on the mound, talk turned to his April perfect game, his velocity, and his strikeouts. But once the game got underway, it became apparent that while some batters will struggle with Sasaki’s speed, his fastball, was flat and hittable, which almost everyone at Sapporo Dome put down to the slicker WBC ball, but that’s how his fastball had often been this season throwing the ball he’s used to.
When another pitcher, who doesn’t throw as hard, replaced Sasaki and was overpowering the way the kid hadn’t been, this led to a discussion in the broadcast booth with analysts Atsuya Furuta and Daisuke Matsuzaka, which was ironic, as those familiar with Matsuzaka’s career arc and arsenal might guess.
The two games against Australia were essentially tryouts, with manager Hideki Kuriyama trying out players in different positions, such as having Hanshin shortstop Takumu Nakano in left. Kuriyama said afterward that many questions remained to be resolved but he would do his best to make the right choices ahead of March.
Autumn internationals Game 2
Japan 9, Australia 0: At Sapporo Dome, Sasaki, pitching for the first time in a month and a half, hit 159 kph on the gun, but was lucky not to give up a first-inning run when his flat fastballs were lined just foul. He allowed a first-inning leadoff single and a walk but got out of trouble with a called third strike and a double play.
A two-run Yasutaka Shiomi single put Japan ahead in the second inning. Tim Atherton puzzled Japan with good movement on his pitches, but some contact-oriented swings on his mistakes got the job done. Ryoma Nishikawa and Kazuma Okamoto singled with one out, and Yuhei Nakamura drew a walk ahead of his Yakult teammate Shiomi, whose little liner dropped in to put Samurai Japan in front.
Four walks from Josh Guyer made it 3-0 in the third, and doubles from Koji Chikamoto and Kensuke Kondo produced a fourth-inning run before the game got completely out of hand.
Sasaki allowed four hits and walked a batter, but was so uncomfortable with the ball that he threw in the bullpen between each inning he worked.
Like Shota Imanaga the night before, Takahashi showed the dome crowd what a good fastball looks like, striking out four in two innings.
This is when Furuta, who’d been calling Sasaki’s pitches flat with poor spin all night, chimed in from the broadcast booth. He explained that Takahashi’s was so much better because batters couldn’t deal with the spin he imparted on it, while the spin and spin axis on Sasaki’s fastball were not optimal.
To be fair, Sasaki’s fastball was the eighth most valuable fastball in NPB last season among those thrown by pitchers throwing 200 or more of them this past season, but his spin was inconsistent for most of the season.
The announcer then asked Matsuzaka for his opinion. Matsuzaka first became famous for his blazing speed as a high school pitcher, but whose flat straight fastball throughout his career forced him to develop other pitches so he could keep batters from sitting on what was supposed to be his best pitch and hitting the bejesus out of it.
“It’s the ball,” Matsuzaka said. “It’s hard to adjust to.”