Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

No Shortage of Sensations in Japan ; Deep Talent Pool Remains as Country Anticipates Darvish's M.L.B. Debut

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

No Shortage of Sensations in Japan ; Deep Talent Pool Remains as Country Anticipates Darvish's M.L.B. Debut

Article excerpt

Yu Darvish may have left to play for the Texas Rangers, but Japanese bullpens are brimming with plenty of talent, perhaps including the next big international star.

On the side of the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters' spring training bullpen reserved for fan viewing, onlookers jockeyed to capture a glimpse of the pitcher who had started throwing. The center of attention was not Yu Darvish this time, for he had signed a six- year contract with the Texas Rangers.

The commotion surrounded the 23-year-old Yuki Saito, who went 6- 6 in 19 starts as a rookie last year. Saito is not expected to fill the void in the rotation left by Darvish's departure, but he may be just the kind of player who helps buoy interest in Japanese baseball.

Saito was a star of the national high school baseball tournament, the summer sporting event that has gripped Japan for nearly a century. As a senior in 2006, he started all seven games his team played in the 16-day tournament. His school won its first national championship.

His last four starts, on successive days, included pitching 15 innings of the championship game that ended in a 1-1 tie, then all nine innings of the 4-3 victory for the title. His 69 innings and 948 pitches set tournament records, and his 78 strikeouts were the most in 48 years. He also endeared himself to the nation by tucking into his uniform pocket a handkerchief that he used to wipe his brow.

The professional game in Japan ultimately benefits from players like Saito, who excelled in the high school tournament. He went to college, but the four-year break did not diminish the fans' interest in him.

Bobby Keppel, a former Mets first-round draft pick in his third season pitching for the Fighters, recalled Saito's first professional camp last year, when Darvish was still the face of the franchise.

"No one back home would understand this, but I remember last year, I was running poles with him and I had 10 reporters come up to me and say, 'What was it like running with Yuki Saito?"' Keppel said. "I was like: 'Really? All I did was run with the guy.'

"There were cameras everywhere, and every question I got was about him, basically. Women, children, girls, they all worship him. Even guys worship him. There's no one I can think of to compare it to in the States."

Keppel suggested the National Football League quarterback Tim Tebow, but added that even he has more of a niche following.

"Here, it seems everyone follows him," Keppel said of Saito. "He was the role model for all types of people, the son you wanted to have, the boyfriend you wanted to have, and the guy you wanted to grow up to be like."

The United States may not have a player like Saito, but a rival team in the Pacific League, the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, has Masahiro Tanaka, 23. He was the winning pitcher when his high school earned a second straight national championship in 2005. …

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