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Japanese pitcher Roki Sasaki could be baseball's next big thing

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Major League Baseball fans continue to marvel at the Japanese pitching and hitting sensation Shohei Ohtani of the LA Angels. But there's already another next big thing emerging in Japanese baseball. He's a 20-year-old pitcher who stunned the baseball world this month. NPR's Tom Goldman has that story.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Last Sunday, superhuman Roki Sasaki was merely human. He pitched five innings for his Chiba Lotte Marines. He struck out four, walked three, gave up two runs, but got the win. A solid effort, but compared to what he'd done the previous two weeks - utterly pedestrian.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: (Non-English language spoken).

GOLDMAN: On April 10, Sasaki pitched the Japanese Major League's first perfect game in 28 years. He was breathtaking, in not allowing a single opponent to get on base, striking out 19 of the 27 batters he faced. Afterwards, Sasaki had a press conference on the field. His questioner asked, many fans are hoping there's more to come. What do you say to them?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROKI SASAKI: (Speaking Japanese).

(APPLAUSE)

GOLDMAN: "I'm going to keep trying my best," Sasaki said, "to pitch just as well the next time out." A young man of his word, a week later, Sasaki pitched perfectly again into the eighth inning. But opposing batters were making good contact and his pitch count was getting high. So his manager, who has protected Sasaki like a rare jewel, pulled him from the game.

Jim Allen lives in Japan and has written about baseball there for nearly 30 years.

JIM ALLEN: The thing that shocked me the most was the lack of outrage.

GOLDMAN: The outrage of sitting a pitcher when he's this close to a perfect game, considered a once-in-a-lifetime achievement. But in this case, it was taking out a pitcher on the cusp of a second perfect game in a row. With Sasaki, Allen says, the calculus of once in a lifetime has changed.

ALLEN: The way he pitched on April 10 - we got a sensation that this is not the end, that this is the beginning, and that this is something that is a very real possibility every time he pitches.

GOLDMAN: Sasaki has been on baseball's radar since he was a high school senior, throwing close to a hundred miles per hour. But managers and coaches have brought him along slowly, not wanting to burn him out or overwork a young man still physically developing. His first year professionally, he didn't pitch. His second year, appearances were limited. And now, Year 3...

ALLEN: I've been watching all his starts. They're just electric.

GOLDMAN: Allen says Japanese media want to know everything about Sasaki, including his sad past. His father and two other relatives died when their home was washed away in the 2011 tsunami.

ALLEN: He said, you know, it's something that will never be erased from my memory. And I want people to know that this is still a thing, you know, that people are still unable to return to their homes.

GOLDMAN: But Allen says Sasaki doesn't wear the tragedy on his sleeve and handles the constant questions about his dad in a calm and understated way, kind of the way he mows down opposing batters - with an effortless and efficient delivery that belies the ferocity of his blazing fastball and confounding split-finger pitch. It's unlikely he'll make the jump to the U.S. for several years, which is why Major League scouts are okay with a take-it-slowly approach. After Sunday's win, Sasaki was temporarily deactivated - more protection. But when he makes his next start, batters are sure to shudder while fans dream of what's next.

Tom Goldman, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOE'S "DUAL HARMONICS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on NPR.org.
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