The Hanshin Tigers popped a spring surprise on Shintaro Fujinami, naming the enigmatic right-hander to start on Opening Day, when the team opens at Jingu Stadium against the Yakult Swallows on March 26, Kyodo News (Japanese) reported Tuesday.
“You could say ‘absolutely not’ if I had any thought this might happen,” Fujinami said after the announcement. “My only emotion is that of being surprised, but I want to pitch in a way that will give the team momentum.”
As a high school senior, Fujinami was considered Japan’s top amateur pitching prospect, a hard thrower who was more polished than Shohei Ohtani. The club utterly failed to develop Fujinami’s physical strength and his career went into a tailspin when the Tigers made former star outfielder Tomoaki Kanemoto.
Kanemoto stuck with Fujinami in the eighth inning of a July 8, 2016 game, when the Tigers were losing 5-2. Fujinami had struck out 12 of the first 26 batters he faced but had already walked four. He ended up throwing 161 pitches and allowing eight runs. Kanemoto afterward told the press he stuck with the youngster to teach him a lesson, and then sent him to the farm for 10 days to think on his sins.
Since then, some of Fujinami’s troubles have been of his own making, getting infected with the coronavirus at a friend’s dinner party last March and repeatedly being late for practice, but he remains one of Japanese baseball’s hardest-throwing pitchers. He walked 40 batters last year in 76-1/3 innings, but at least his strikeout-to-walk ratio was back above 2.0 for the first time since 2016.
He wasn’t the only spring surprise as the Chunchi Dragons have opted for 30-year-old Koji Fukutani instead of Sawamura Award-winning lefty Yudai Ono, ostensibly because Ono had a slow start to camp, with Pro Yakyu News talking heads Kenichi Yazawa and Hiroki Nomura suggesting that fatigue from a workhorse season that didn’t end until November was an issue.
Some managers might want to use this as a teaching point, saying “If you aren’t ready to throw a bullpen the first week of camp, I can’t count on you,” but Yoda’s not that kind of hard-ass, old-school guy who demands lip service to the game’s dogma.
“Sure your Opening Day starting pitcher is important, but what’s more important is the season as a whole,” said Yoda, who told reporters he made the decision early on in camp when Ono was clearly not physically where he expected to be.
Ono threw four razor-sharp innings on Friday and probably will be ready to pitch the first week of the season, but Yoda’s decision is another reminder that Japanese baseball is changing since Opening Day is no longer treated as if it were Game 7 of the Japan Series.
The third surprise, so far, is the Lotte Marines going with Kota Futaki, who will be only opening his eighth pro season instead of his ninth like Fujinami and Fukutani.
The 25-year-old Futaki lowered the frequency of his walks and home runs allowed in 2020, but Marines manager Tadahito Iguchi said the idea was to give the right-hander extra motivation this season.
“He responded last season when we handed him (the ace) No. 18,” Iguchi said. “So I think it’s about time we give him his independence.”
But of course, there’s no real spring surprise without a shoutout to the Monty Python classic “Crunchy Frog” where we learn what the Whizzo Chocolate Company considers a spring surprise.