Tag Archives: Junji Ogawa

Tony Barnette and Japan

On Wednesday, Jan. 29, Tony Barnette announced he is retiring from pro baseball after a career that included six seasons with the Yakult Swallows.

His success with Yakult coincided with a time when the club, tired of seeing their high-quality imports leaving after a couple of years to join the Yomiuri Giants, began handing out solid multiyear contracts. The deal offered Barnette and outfielder Wladimir Balentien, and the development of second baseman Tetsuto Yamada proved instrumental in the Swallows surprising 2015 Central League championship.

In March, I spoke with Barnette in the Chicago Cubs’ clubhouse at their spring training base in Mesa, Arizona. We talked about what worked for him in Japan, and about his relationship with pitching coach Tomohito Ito.

“In Japan, you have to learn how to get guys to swing and miss. And if you can do it there, that plays anywhere. The passion is there, the caring is there. The heart and hustle, it’s all there. That’s one of the things that has stuck with me, keeping that competitive level all throughout the game.”

Tony Barnette on what he learned in Japanese baseball

After a rocky first season as a starter, when he allowed 6.21 runs per nine innings in a hitters’ park in a hitters’ league, there was no guarantee Barnette would even be back for a second season in 2011. He credited the support from then-manager Junji Ogawa and pitching coach Daisuke Araki and the guidance of Araki’s successor, Tomohito Ito.

Tony Barnette, chat in Mesa, Arizona, March 2019.

Tomohito Ito

Pitching coach Tomohito Ito

On March 30, I talked with Ito, currently coaching with the Pacific League’s Rakuten Eagles, about Barnette.

“He basically threw hard when he arrived,” Ito said. “But the slider and changeup were essentially his only secondary pitches, and his command of the change wasn’t that good. Some days he could throw strikes with the slider, and some days he couldn’t.”

“He pitched well in his first start, into the seventh inning, but opponents studied him.”

Ito said that although the results as a starter were not that good, Barnette was showing progress from the middle of the season, working on different pitches that would get him over the hump in Japan.

“He worked on his cutter, he learned a splitter, he threw a two-seamer,” Ito said. “In the process, that cutter became pretty good. By the time the season ended, the club didn’t rate him very highly as a starter, but he was throwing some nasty pitches, so my idea was to use him as a reliever, so I sounded him out about that.”

“He wanted the opportunity and gave it a shot. The fastball worked, and with the cutter, that would get him started in relief. When teams started adjusting, he’d have the splitter, and sometimes a sinker and then a curve that he was beginning to throw.”

Ito, too, pointed out that one reason so many foreign players have had success with the Swallows is the club’s situation on the fringes.

“Yakult is a good place for imported players,” he said. “We know that if the foreign players don’t do well, we’re not going to be successful as a team, so the culture on the team is to stay positive and supportive with them.”

“One of the advantages is that Japan gives players opportunities to try new things.”

NPB games, news of Sept. 8, 2019

Tough to Swallow

Junji Ogawa announced Sunday for the second time in six years that he no longer wants to manage the Central League’s Yakult Swallows. The team is in last place and has been eliminated from playoff contention. Ogawa took over last year and led the Swallows to second place. In six seasons over two terms, he has led them to the postseason three times.

Head coach Shinya Miyamoto, who was expected to take over after a brief coaching stint, said he wants no part of the job either. One potential candidate to manage is current farm manager and former pitching coach Shingo Takatsu.

If Takatsu does take over, he’ll become the second Japanese former major leaguer to manage a top-flight NPB club after fellow former White Sox infielder Tadahito Iguchi took over the Pacific League’s Lotte Marines in 2018.

Pacific League

Hawks 9, Marines 6

At Yafuoku Dome, Lotte’s Brandon Laird homered, reached base four times and drove in four runs, but SoftBank came back against starter Atsuki Taneichi to tie it in the seventh inning on a pinch-hit RBI single by Keizo Kawashima. Kenji Akashi’s eighth-inning pinch-hit double put the Hawks ahead in the eighth before Kawashima doubled in an insurance run.

Hawks starter Shota Takeda put the home team in a bind by allowing four runs over four innings. Taneichi allowed six runs in 6-1/3, and the Marines bullpen let the game get away further.

Game highlights are HERE.

Lions 3, Eagles 2

At Rakuten Seimei Park, Takeya Nakamura doubled in two runs for Seibu and Hotaka Yamakawa doubled in another run in the eighth after Rakuten’s Jabari Blash tied it in the sixth with his 31st home run.

Game highlights are HERE.

Fighters 2, Buffaloes 0

At Sapporo Dome, the future and past crossed paths as former Orix ace Chihiro Kaneko (6-4) matched his season-high of six innings to outpitch the Buffaloes best young pitcher Yoshinobu Yamamoto (6-5), who held Nippon Ham to an unearned run over six innings.

Yamamoto was on the mound for the first time since straining his left oblique muscles on Aug. 3. He allowed three hits and struck out six without issuing a walk.

The Fighters’ future and past also collided as their former closer, Hirotoshi Masui surrendered a solo homer to up-and-coming slugger Kotaro Kiyomiya.

Game highlights are HERE.

Let’s pretend it never happened

For some reason, Nippon Ham Fighters manager Hideki Kuriyama has decided to ditch the idea of openers and short starters. On Sunday, Chihiro Kaneko worked six innings, marking the first time this season that Fighters starters have worked six innings or more in three consecutive games.

They have also equaled the team’s longest streak of consecutive five-plus inning starts.

Mizuki Hori, who had been dynamite as the opener, has been demoted to the farm, where he is pitching occasionally and striking out batters, something one imagines would be more useful on the first team.

It’s almost as if there was a purge and evidence of the experiment, Hori, has been sent into exile in the team’s Kamagaya gulag.

Central League

Dragons 5, BayStars 2

At Nagoya Dome, Chunichi’s Yudai Ono (8-8) lost his bid for a shutout when DeNA’s Neftali Soto hit his 36th home run, a two-run shot in the ninth. The win was Chunichi’s sixth straight after sweeping the league’s top two teams, the Giants and BayStars.

As they have for the past week or so, the Dragons continued to be tenacious at the plate and on the bases. Yota Kyoda legged out a triple in the fourth inning and scored from third on a foul pop down the first base line. With Ono cruising, Nobumasa Fukuda essentially put the game away in the sixth with a two-run double.

Carp 3, Tigers 2

At Mazda Stadium, Hiroshima’s Hisayoshi Chono singled in two runs and made a good catch in left field to help Kris Johnson (11-7) earn the win over Hanshin with six scoreless innings.

Geronimo Franzua entered the game with two outs in the eighth and a runner on second. He surrendered an RBI double to make it a 3-2 game and walked the next batter before retiring the last four he faced to earn his 11th save.

Fanning Japan’s flame

Barnette, Tazawa, Darvish
Just a small sample of the Chicago Cub’s Japan contingent in Arizona this spring, pitchers Tony Barnette, Junichi Tazawa and Yu Darvish.

Good cheer and good hustle

Chicago Cubs pitcher Tony Barnette on Friday paid tribute to an overlooked aspect of Japanese baseball, its passion and fan-fueled competitiveness.

Asked what aspects of the game helped shape him as a player, the former Yakult Swallows closer cited the non-stop cheering and noise-making as more than just a part of the atmosphere, but something that adds to the amount o fight displayed between the lines.

“One thing I haven’t talked about much is the competitiveness of every single game,” he said. “The fan atmosphere helps with that. It doesn’t matter if you’re 10 games above .500 or 15 games below, they’re still showing up. That attitude adds to the competitiveness of the game, because a dead stadium is a dead stadium. It’s hard to get into it.”

“But as a player, you feel, if they’re still into it, we’re still into it. They’re not going to quit, we’re not going to quit. The more and more you win, the better it gets.”

“The passion is there, the caring is there. The heart and hustle is still there. You see the way guys bust it down the line, sliding head-first. As bad as that is, it’s still there. That’s one of the things that has stuck with me, is keeping that competitive level all the way through the game and all the way through the season.”

Pitcher Chris Martin, Barnette’s teammate last season with the Texas Rangers, said last November, that playing for Japan’s Nippon Ham Fighters prepared him to play in the majors by getting him used to executing pitches in high-pressure situations.

“One of the things people don’t give Japan credit for is it’s a competitive league with competitive players. The talent level may fall off a bit quicker, but the fact of the matter is guys are out there to win every single night and it’s good baseball.”

“It’s June and it’s Hanshin and there are 45,000 people in the stands or it’s July or it’s Tokyo Dome, and it’s the ninth inning and – off the bench because he was supposed to have a day off, here comes (future Hall of Famer Shinnosuke) Abe in the ninth inning and that place goes nuts. You get in that situation in that atmosphere, you’ve got to make a big pitch with 50,000 people screaming.”

“That has the big game mentality. Now when you get to the major leagues, it’s like, I’ve been in a stadium this big before. I’ve been in a stadium that’s more full than this. It’s a development thing.”

Giving credit where credit is due

On a personal level, Barnette credited one of his managers and his pitching coaches as huge influences. Manager Junji Ogawa took a team with promising talent and made them playoff contenders, largely by being patient. Under him, the Swallows got big seasons out of Barnette, Lastings Miledge and Wladimir Balentien. All three got big multiyear contracts, and though Miledge fell off the radar, Balentien went on to break Japan’s single-season home run record in 2013, while Barnette established himself as an elite closer.

“Junji Ogawa was instrumental in bringing me back after that first failed starter year, him and coach (Daisuke) Araki. They brought me back.”

“Araki ended up moving on, but then coach (former major leaguer Shingo) Takatsu came. He was such a great coach. His temperament as a pitching coach is just remarkable.” “And then Tomohito Ito. I played catch with that guy pretty much every single day for two years. When it came to the development of the cutter, the split, he’s got his hands all over it. His finger prints are all over the way I pitch today. I can’t talk about Japan without talking about Ito. I think he’s phenomenal in his craft and caring about each individual pitcher to work and get better, that organic way he cares about people. It’s seamless to him. Some guys have to work at it. It comes naturally to him and it shows. Phenomenal charisma. He’s a great guy to be around.”