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Chiba – Roki Sasaki looked up at the video board during his warmups in right field and couldn’t conceal a smile — he’d noticed a friend cheering in the stands as the camera panned the crowd at Zozo Marine Stadium on Saturday.
In the moment with that grin on his face, Sasaki looked like any other 20-year-old. When he was on the mound pitching in the biggest game of his life a little while later, however, Sasaki just looked like the “Monster of the Reiwa Era,” who some believe won’t have an equal in NPB in the future.
Sasaki wasn’t perfect but he lived up to the hype with 10 strikeouts over six strong innings in his postseason debut for the Chiba Lotte Marines, who won Game 1 of the Pacific League Climax Series First Stage against the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles 5-4 on Toshiya Sato’s sayonara double. Sasaki didn’t factor in the decision.
“Looking at him pitching on the mound, he’s grown this year,” Marines manager Tadahito Iguchi said. “He was pitching almost like an ace.”
Sasaki, drafted in 2019, did not make any appearances on the top team last year. He arrived this year ready to contribute and showed plenty of promise — while also experiencing some growing pains — during the regular season. On Saturday, he was handed the ball for the team’s postseason opener.
Sasaki, now the youngest pitcher to start a PL Climax Series game, held the Eagles to one unearned run on four hits and two walks.
“It was the same as usual, I was just a little more nervous,” Sasaki told Nikkan Sports after the game.
Saturday’s game was another tantalizing tease of what could be in store for NPB fans as Sasaki continues to grow and hone his skills.
The young fireballer turned heads with his velocity as a high schooler and hit 159 kph (99 mph) for the first time in his NPB career with three pitches during the first inning on Saturday. He was still throwing hard late, zipping a 156-kph (97-mph) fastball past Eigoro Mogi with his 93rd pitch of the game in the sixth inning.
He also flustered the Eagles batters with the movement he got on some of his splitters in an impressive display for a pitcher who was still a teenager a few days ago.
“Roki really put us in a good position,” Iguchi said.
Sasaki, though, was still not satisfied.
“I didn’t have great control today,” he said.
The lone run he allowed came on an easy bouncing ball to the mound that should have ended the second inning. Sasaki, however, sailed his throw to first over Brandon Laird’s head, which allowed Hiroaki Shimauchi to score from second.
Sasaki is far from a finished product with only 11 starts under his belt, but it’s easy to see why fans are excited by his potential.
Game 1 also reaffirmed that despite much of the discourse around Sasaki being about his future promise, he’s actually pretty good right now.
Including the postseason, Sasaki has pitched at least six innings while allowing two runs or fewer and striking out at least eight in his last five starts. Saturday’s game was the only time during that stretch he walked more than one batter.
Sasaki finished the regular season with a 2.27 ERA, 68 strikeouts and a 1.06 walks plus hits per innings pitched in 63⅓ innings. According to statistics website Deltagraphs, he averaged 152.6 kph (95 mph) with his fastball during the season and also featured a slider, curveball, changeup and splitter.
Sasaki is also generating attention outside Japan.
Baseball analyst Rob Friedman, better known as the man behind the popular Pitching Ninja Twitter account, featured Sasaki’s performance on his social media channels, saying Sasaki’s “Forkball/Splitter may be hazardous to your health.”
Sasaki may not be done either. He will likely get another turn on the mound if the Marines manage to put away the Eagles and advance to the final stage of the Climax Series against the Orix Buffaloes, the home of the best pitcher in NPB right now, Yoshinobu Yamamoto.
He faced the Buffaloes twice during the regular season, allowing two runs and striking out 11 in 11 innings.
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