[NPB NOTEBOOK] Highlighting some of the best performers of the year so far

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Many of the preseason headlines in Nippon Professional Baseball rightly went to sensational pitcher Roki Sasaki, who pitched Japanese baseball‘s first perfect game in 28 years on April 10 and was back at it by just an inning a week later.

The Chiba Lotte Marines flamethrower certainly deserves all the attention it is getting on both sides of the Pacific. But let’s take a look at some of the other players in NPB who have also had strong starts this season.

Teruaki Sato-Hanshin Tigers

While his team is struggling with a 4-19 start, the hitting infielder/outfielder has already had five homers in his first 22 games to take second place through Friday, April 22 with Tokyo Yakult Swallows’ Munetaka Murakami to share in the Central League.

Sato got off to a rocket start in his rookie season last year when he finished with 24 homers, 10 of which came through May 7th.

But Sato slumped in the second half of the season, including five goals in a game against the Hiroshima Carp on July 4, setting an NPB record.

On September 29, Sato set the NPB record for most plate appearances (54) without being hit by a non-pitcher.

Hanshin fans will hope he can keep the momentum going all season this year.

Taisei Ota – Yomiuri Giants

The Yomiuri Giants are off to a strong start to the season. One of the reasons for this is the performance of rookie pitcher Taisei Ota. The 22-year-old right-hander made his 10th save against the Hiroshima Carp in the team’s 21st game of the season on Tuesday, April 19 at the Tokyo Dome.

The previous fastest was Kentaro Nishimura in 23 games in 2013.

“I didn’t get any strikeouts today and the defense was strong,” said Ota in the hero interview after his 10th save. “I was watching (pitcher Shosei Togo) Togo from the bullpen and wanted to produce pitching that would allow him to get the win.”

Ota now has 11 saves, leads the Central League and has helped the Giants make a strong 17-7 start to go three games clear of the Hiroshima Carp.

Ko Matsukawa ― Chiba Lotte marines

Somewhat lost among the fanfare of Sasaki’s 17 perfect innings was the fact that his battery mate in both games was 18-year-old rookie catcher Ko Matsukawa.

The fact that a rookie was on the receiving end of such spectacular pitches is a credit to Japanese baseball in general and the Chiba Lotte Marines in particular.

TIED TOGETHER: [ODDS and EVENS] Roki Sasaki’s perfect game provided an exciting demonstration of his pitching skills

Matsukawa showed plenty of composure as he guided Sasaki through his history-making performance, something that didn’t escape the Marines’ ace pitcher.

“Honestly, I didn’t think about the possibility (a perfect match),” Sasaki was quoted as saying by Kyodo News after his April 10 gem. “I figured it would be okay if I skipped a punch, so I just trusted Matsukawa to the end.”

Matsukawa also helped out 20-year-old Sasaki with his racquet, hitting a three-run double in the perfect game.

Lotte manager Tadahito Iguchi also praised the young catcher.

“I have to give Matsukawa credit for calling such a great game and doing a solid job with the racquet too. The two are quite a battery.”

TIED TOGETHER: EDITORIAL | Sasaki’s Perfect Game a lesson in skill, courage and strength

Work from Ballpark (WFB)

As more people in Japan and around the world find opportunities to work remotely, the Yokohama DeNA BayStars are stepping in.

The Central League team has started offering teleworkers private boxes at Yokohama Stadium during the day before kick-off.

The campaign is called Working Hamasta. Hamasta is a nickname for the popular BayStars stadium, which was renovated ahead of last year’s Tokyo Olympics baseball tournament.

Customers may use the suites behind home plate from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on game days.

Workers must leave before the game starts. The boxes have free WiFi and those wishing to stay for the game must purchase tickets.

For individuals, the fee is 3,000 JPY. Groups of up to four people can rent a suite for 22,000 yen, while larger suites for up to eight people are available for 44,000 yen.

If you are looking for a unique place to work remotely and have a ball game at the end of the day, you couldn’t find a better place.

Soaring Eagles

The Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles were one of the early surprises of the young season.

With an impressive 12-5 record, the Eagles lead the Pacific League by 1½ games over the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks.

Her offense was fueled by Haruki Nishikawa, who leads the league with 15 RBIs and is second with a .333 batting average, and Hiroaki Shimauchi (.292, 11 RBIs).

There have been stellar performances from young players around NPB this season, but for pitching the Eagles are relying on a couple of golden oldies in 38-year-old Takayuki Kishi and 34-year-old Masahiro Tanaka.

Kishi is 2-0 with a 1.35 ERA and 17 strikeouts in three starts.

Tanaka is 2-1 with a 2.05 ERA and also has 17 Ks.

Yuki Matsui tops the league with 6 saves.

Rakuten finished third in the Pacific League standings last season, so the Eagles were expected to be good this year, just maybe not as good.

Former NPB and MLB pitcher Kaz Ishii, in his second season as manager, has gotten his team off to a flying start in hopes of repeating the 2013 Japan Series championship season when they were led by Tanaka.

Hamming it Up

After a rather subdued start to the season, the Hokkaido Nipponham Fighters under coach Tsuyoshi Shinjo are showing signs of life in their first year.

Before the 4-2 loss to the Eagles on Wednesday, April 20, the Fighters had racked up three straight wins to go 7-12.

That included a 1-0 win over the Marines on April 17 that denied Roki Sasaki a second straight perfect game.

Among the standouts for the Fighters this season are outfielders Chusei Minnami, who hit the extra-inning solo homer in a win over Lotte and Go Matsumoto, who leads the Pacific League with a .400 batting average.

Follow baseball coverage throughout the season here.

Author: Jim Armstrong

The author is a veteran journalist who has covered sports in Japan for more than 25 years. You can find his articles here.

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