By KIRBY ARNOLD
Bryan Price remembers the day last February when Kazuhiro Sasaki took the mound at the Seattle Mariners’ spring training complex to show the major league world the pitching form that made him an icon in Japan.
What struck the Mariners’ pitching coach most, however, was the uneasy feeling in the pit of his stomach when Sasaki went to his best stuff.
Sasaki’s fastball peaked at an unimpressive 85 mph and he couldn’t locate anything, including his supposedly unhittable forkball, below the belt.
“I thought, ‘My goodness, I don’ think he’s all the way back yet,’” Price said.
And there, surprisingly, began a journey of huge cultural and strategic adjustments that carried Sasaki to the American League Rookie of the Year award.
The 32-year-old right-hander became the second-oldest player to win the award when voting by the Baseball Writers Association of America was announced Monday.
Despite concerns even by Sasaki that he shouldn’t be considered a rookie because of his 10 seasons in the Japan League, he won the award by a wide margin over Oakland center fielder Terrence Long. Sasaki received 17 first-place votes and 104 points, while Long received seven firsts and 83 points. Kansas City left fielder Mark Quinn was third with 56 points.
“I didn’t think my chances were very good,” Sasaki said Monday via conference call in Japan, where it was 7:35 a.m. Tuesday. “I did play in Japan for 10 years.”
That, and the fact that the Players’ Choice Award for rookie of the year went to Long.
“I didn’t think I was going to get the award,” Sasaki said.
Anyone who watched Sasaki pitch that February day in Peoria, Ariz., or those who followed him early in the season, might not have, either. Elbow surgery a year ago had a lot to do with Sasaki’s soft-pedal approach at spring training, and his unfamiliarity with American League hitters caused him to struggle the first third of the season.
After two months, Sasaki was 1-4 with a 4.50 earned run average, only four saves, and two humbling dents to his psyche. In a span of three days in early May, David Segui popped a game-winning home run off Sasaki in Texas and Matt Stairs did it again in Oakland.
A national hero in Japan looked like your average Mariners closer in the states.
“What got him in trouble in those games wasn’t just the home run,” Price said. “That was the final blow, but the problems that led up to that was he was pitching defensively. He was getting behind in the count and getting himself into bad situations to good hitters.”
Sasaki learned, Price said, and he was a lights-out pitcher when he faced teams the second time around.
Sasaki lost only once more the rest of the season, he finished with a team-record 37 saves and was a huge part of the Mariners’ run six games deep into the American League Championship Series.
“There were times when it went very well and times when I went through some hard times,” Sasaki said. “It was just a great experience to go through, and at the end it was great to make the playoffs.”
Once he adjusted to the league, Sasaki was just as overpowering here as he was in Japan.
“The only thing he needed to do was get around the league one time and figure out how to pitch these guys,” Price said
The irony of it all was that the Mariners had considered pitching Sasaki in spring training only against National League teams, or non-AL West teams, so hitters couldn’t pick up his pattern. The key, it turned out, was for Sasaki to see the hitters for himself and let his experience tell him what approach to take.
“Once he saw these hitters, he didn’t get defensive,” Price said. “He got more aggressive with his fastball and got away from being a more predictable pitcher. He knew what he wanted to throw before he got to the mound.”
Savvy veterans make such adjustments, which brings up the issue of whether Sasaki should be considered a rookie in the first place.
Oakland manager Art Howe believes Long should have won the award.
“I just know our kid deserves it,” Howe told the Associated Press. “I don’t have a vote, but I’d vote for my kid if I did.”
The discussion may come up again next year, when veteran Japanese batting champion Ichiro Suzuki – a close friend of Sasaki – hopes to play in the majors.
“My feeling is that there’s no more competitive place to play than the major leagues in the United States,” Price said. “Now there’s talk of Ichiro. Should he come over here with the expectation of hitting .380? I don’t think so.
“I don’t think that expectation was there with Kazuhiro. Anybody you take from outside major league baseball and bring them into this environment, I think they should be considered a rookie.”
In Sasaki’s case, it’s rookie of the year.
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