NPB news: April 6, 2023

Roki rocked, Mark Payton socked, Masahiro Tanaka clocked another milestone but not another win on Thursday, when Japanese pro baseball mimicked life in that nobody was perfect, with SoftBank, Yakult and Hanshin all tasting defeat for the first time.

Today, I also have a list of the Japanese pitchers ranked 1 to 20 in career major league strikeouts, not MLB strikeouts but in the world’s major leagues.

Meanwhile, we learned that Shohei Ohtani, in addition to his skill at pitching and hitting, proved himself also capable of some slight of hand.

Thursday’s games

Marines 6, Fighters 1: At Chiba Marine Stadium, taking the mound to chants of “Sasaki, Sasaki,” 21-year-old Roki Sasaki responded to surrendering a one-out line-drive single by retiring the next 17 batters before leaving his regular season debut after 80 pitches and 11 strikeouts.

“He didn’t seem to have any trouble switching between the ball we use and the one in the WBC,” said Lotte manager Masato Yoshii, who served as Japan’s WBC pitching coach.

With the win, his managerial record stands at 3-3 after starting 0-3.

Sasaki, however, suggested the fans chant “Roki” instead of “Sasaki,” so as not to confuse him with Lotte reliever Chihaya Sasaki.

“When they chanted Sasaki at first, I didn’t know they were calling my name,” Sasaki said in a perfect dead-pan delivery. “I eventually figured it out.”

Shogo Nakamura’s first-inning double made it 1-0 off Nippon Ham lefty Takayuki Kato (0-2), who allowed three runs, two earned, over seven innings. Nakamura singled in the fourth and scored on a wild pickoff throw. He also singled and scored in Lotte’s three-run eighth.

Lions 2, Eagles 1: At Miyagi Stadium, Seibu’s Mark Payton blasted his first Japan home run to give the Lions a 1-0 lead over Masahiro Tanaka (1-1).

Tanaka allowed only one run over six innings thanks to a good play in left from Hiroto Kobukata.

Tanaka came out on the losing end, but became the 59th pitcher to strike out 1,500 batters in Japanese pro baseball when he fanned slugger Hotaka Yamakawa in the sixth inning. With his 991 MLB strikeouts he has 2,491 in his major league career, ranking him 12th among pitchers whose pro careers began in Japan (see table below).

Lions starter Wataru Matsumoto (1-0) scattered three hits and two walks over six innings to collect the win, secured when Yamakawa doubled in Shuta Tonosaki with an eighth-inning insurance run. New setup man Jesus Tinoco surrendered an eighth-inning run before Tatsushi Masuda locked it down.

David McKinnon doubled, walked and made this grab at third for the Lions.

Career major league strikeouts by pitchers turning pro in Japan
 Total Japan MLB
1Masaichi Kaneda*   4,490   4,490          –  
2Tetsuya Yoneda*   3,388   3,388          –  
3Masaaki Koyama*   3,159   3,159          –  
4Hideo Nomo*   3,129   1,211   1,918
5Keishi Suzuki*   3,061   3,061          –  
6Yu Darvish   3,041   1,250   1,791
7Yutaka Enatsu   2,987   2,987          –  
8Takao Kajimoto*   2,945   2,945          –  
9Kimiyasu Kudo*   2,859   2,859          –  
10Kazuhisa Inao*   2,574   2,574          –  
11Kazuhisa Ishii   2,570   2,135      435
12Masahiro Tanaka   2,491   1,500      991
13Daisuke Miura   2,481   2,481          –  
14Hiroki Kuroda   2,447   1,461      986
15Choji Murata*   2,363   2,363          –  
16Masahiro Yamamoto*   2,310   2,310          –  
17Minoru Murayama*   2,271   2,271          –  
18Masaichi Ono   2,244   2,244          –  
20Daisuke Matsuzaka         1,410            720         2,130
*– Voted into Japan’s Baseball Hall of Fame

Buffaloes 7, Hawks 2: At Osaka Dome, Yoshinobu Yamamoto (1-0) worked six scoreless innings in his season debut.

Orix took a 4-0 lead in the fourth. Submariner Rei Takahashi (0-1) issued two walks and surrendered a Tomoya Mori double before Yugo Bando gave up Yutaro Sugimoto’s three-run homer. Yuma Tongu’s three-run eighth-inning double put things on ice.

Dragons 3, Swallows 1: At Nagoya Dome, Hiroto Takahashi (1-0), the youngest member of Japan’s WBC team and one of the least used, struck out eight while allowing a run on one hit and two walks over six innings.

Lefty Masanori Ishikawa (0-1), who turned pro out of university and made his NPB debut four months before the 20-year-old Takahashi was born, allowed three runs, two earned, in 2-2/3 innings. The Swallows had surrendered just two runs in their first five wins.

Taiki Hamada gave Yakult a 1-0 lead with a one-out homer in the first only for Takahashi to fall one batter short of replicating Roki Sasaki’s finish and retired just 17 of the last 18 batters he faced.

Raidel Martinez faced the heart of the Swallows lineup in the ninth and struck out Munetaka Murakami and Jose Osuna en route to his second save.

In lieu of a ceremonial first pitch, two former Dragons and future Hall of Famers squared off, with former rifle-armed outfielder Kosuke Fukudome pitching to former closer Hitoki Iwase, who started his college career as a slugging outfielder before converting to the mound.

“He was faster than I thought he’d be. I thought I’d be able to hit him but I couldn’t,” said Iwase, who missed badly at a big looping pitch.

On a side note, when Japan practiced at Florida International University in Miami on March 18, one of the Japan coaches tried to coax Koji Uehara into throwing batting practice. When Uehara declined, Fukudome volunteered, but no one took him up on it.

BayStars 4, Giants 0: At Yokohama Stadium, Katsuki Azuma (1-0) struck out eight over seven innings and broke up a scoreless game with a fifth-inning squeeze. Taishi Kusumuto, pinch-hitting for Azuma in the seventh, hit a three-run bomb against Yomiuri’s second pitcher, rookie Hiromasa Funabasama.

The Giants ran themselves out of a second-inning scoring opportunity when Lewis Brinson doubled and headed to third without noticing that the lead runner, Kazuma Okamoto, was scrambling back to third, forcing Okamoto to try for home, where Azuma tagged him out.

Brinson, however, got some payback by gunning down Taiki Sekine on the base paths in the home half. Sekine, too, got some redemption when he scored from third when the throw on Azuma’s bunt went to first.

Carp 3, Tigers 0, 5 innings rain: At New Hiroshima Citizen’s Stadium, Shogo Akiyama doubled in a first-inning run off Junya Nishi (0-1), and Matt Davidson doubled and hit a two-run homer off Nishi that made it 3-0 in the fourth.

Atsushi Endo (1-0) earned the Carp’s first win of the year. He threw five scoreless innings despite allowing three hits, four walks and hitting a batter. He twice retired Teruaki Sato for the final out with two on.

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