Roki Sasaki

Something to talk about

Roki Sasaki is not currently with the Lotte Marines’ major league club, but the ripples he has caused in Japan’s pro baseball pond have yet to settle.

On Tuesday, we had one more opinion about how Sasaki’s being handled from someone who knows a thing about the pitfalls of failing to protect good pitchers arms, Hall of Famer Hiroshi Gondo, and some more fallout from umpire Kazuyuki Shirai’s mid-game etiquette lesson to Lotte’s young star on Sunday.

Gondo applauds Lotte’s handling of Sasaki

Before the complicated Hiroshi Gondo was a respected pitching coach and manager—except by Japan’s curmudgeon corps–was a tremendous pitcher with a meteoric career and flame out. On Tuesday, Jiji Press cited his response to Lotte’s kid-glove treatment of Roki Sasaki.

Gondo’s career had all the makings of a novel. He went 35-19 with the Chunichi Dragons as a rookie, throwing a record 429-1/3 innings, and followed that up with a 30-17 sophomore season in which he threw 362-1/3 innings. And that was pretty much his pitching career. He went 17-24 after that.

As a pitching coach when Hall of Fame manager Akira Ogi took over the Kintetsu Buffaloes in 1988, Gondo came aboard in the second season of skinny lefty Hideyuki Awano’s career but failed to prevent him from suffering an abusive workload. Awano’s career flamed out after three straight 200-plus innings in a hitters’ park in a high-octane offensive era.

When he took over as the manager of the BayStars in 1998, he became more careful, but on April 21, he related that the trainers had to intervene one time when he wanted to use his closer Kazuhiro “Daimajin” Sasaki in six straight games.

“When Sasaki went to pitch for the Seattle Mariners, “he was told that throwing five straight games was crazy,” Gondo wrote in one column in which he argued for not pushing Sasaki too hard simply because he is good now. “Nobody knows when his peak will come, but he is just 20. If for some reason you stop him in his tracks before he’s in full bloom, the chance that he will blossom into something even more extraordinary will be gone forever.”

Mind you, when I asked Gondo a few years ago about the growing movement toward introducing pitching restrictions in high school baseball, he basically said, “They strive as hard as they get to get there, it’s ridiculous to put the brakes on them.”

That’s Gondo for you. He speaks from the heart but for the life of me I can never predict what he’ll say next.

On Tuesday, Jiji mentioned that he met with Marines manager Tadahito Iguchi and pitching coach Masato Yoshii, whom he oversaw during his time with Kintetsu, in spring camp in 2020, and asked them to take special care with Sasaki.

“Of course, I told them that. It’s amazing that they’ve actually done it,” Gondo said. “With a 160-kph fastball and a forkball that drops out of sight. He doesn’t really need to get batters to chase out of the zone. With him on the mound it’s like have the Daimajin throw for nine innings. Going forward, he’s going to astonish the world. You can’t help but be excited.”

Stern ump gets a talking to

The other incident from Sunday’s game involved home plate umpire Kazuyuki Shirai, who approached the mound in the second inning when it looked like Sasaki was giving him some lip. On Monday, Yu Darvish chimed in to tell the world not to be so hard on umps when they showed some understandable human emotion.

On Tuesday Sponichi Annex reported that NPB secretary general Atsushi Ihara revealed that umpire in chief Masato Tomoyose called Shirai to tell him that he could have handled the situation better, and that Shirai said he would sincerely reflect on it going forward.

Tomoyose was in charge of overseeing that game, and I sincerely doubt that his postgame chate with Shirai were nothing out of the ordinary. What’s unusual is that Ihara felt the need to comment on it, for the obvious reason that NPB was flooded with complaints about the umpire scolding the 20-year-old pitching star.

Ihara said the bulk of the comments said the umpire should have had a word with the pitcher between innings or after the game. Ihara said there was no need and no consideration that umpires so warning players would be subject to discipline.

Had the pitcher not been a rock star, people wouldn’t have complained and NPB wouldn’t be bothered to say what happened. No one would have cared whether the umpire received any official comments on his work.

It’s like the gambling scandals that roiled badminton and baseball a few years ago. A number of careers were crushed, but two were saved. Elite world-class badminton player Kento Momota, and Yomiuri Giants lefty Kyosuke Takagi, the one baseball player caught up in his team’s scandals with any value. Each was suspended for a year and then made his way back to work.

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