Roki Sasaki of Japan throws during the Japan Workout and press conference at loanDepot park on March 19, 2023 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Masterpress – Samurai Japan/SAMURAI JAPAN via Getty Images)
By Leif Skodnick
World Baseball Network
MIAMI- American fans will get their first good look at the next Japanese baseball sensation tomorrow night when Japan plays Mexico in the World Baseball Classic semifinals.
Japan manager Hideki Kuriyama named Roki Sasaki his starting pitcher for the game, which will be played at loanDepot Park in Miami at 7 p.m. Monday.
“He is one of the pitchers that Japan is proud of, and so in this situation really expecting — I’m not really expecting what type of pitching that I want him to do, but I just want him to do the pitching that he’s thinking of and I want him to contribute to the WBC,” Kuriyama said following Japan’s workout on Sunday.
Sasaki has made one appearance for Japan, going 3.2 innings, allowing two hits, one run, two walks, and striking out eight in Japan’s Pool C game against the Czech Republic.
Just 21, Sasaki has pitched each of the last two seasons with the Chiba Lotte Marines of Nippon Professional Baseball, the top professional league in Japan. And though he’s only appeared in 36 games in his young career, Sasaki, a righthander who throws from a three-quarters arm angle with a fastball that touches 102 mph, has left a big impression.
On April 10, 2022, Sasaki took the mound for the Chiba Lotte Marines and gave one of the greatest pitching performances the world has ever seen – and that’s not hyperbole. The then-20 year old hurler threw the first perfect game in the NPB in 28 years, striking out 19 batters in the outing – and 13 of the strikeouts were consecutive, in a 6-0 win against the Orix Buffaloes.
The performance earned a game score of 106, the highest of any game pitched since Kerry Wood’s 20-strikeout game for the Chicago Cubs in 1998.
“I think I will play in Japan, and then I think something will become clear when I’m going to shift over,” Sasaki said of the potential of him being posted to sign with a Major League Baseball organization. “What team or what type of environment in the Major League can provide or something like that is what he told me about.”
Japanese players can only leave NPB as free agents once they have accrued nine years of service time. Until they have accrued that service time, they have to ask their team to place them into the “Posting System,” a procedure where, once an NPB team has given the player permission, the player has 45 days to negotiate a deal with an MLB team. The player’s NPB club would then receive a percentage of the total value of the player’s MLB contract as a fee for releasing him.
Additionally, foreign-born players are subject to rules restricting signing bonuses to international players who are not eligible for the MLB Amateur Draft and have not reached the age of 25.
First, Sasaki will have to get by Mexico in the World Baseball Classic semifinal.
“I have not seen it yet on that video, but I did see them play against Puerto Rico. I think it was a very magnificent game. I think they’re a very powerful team,” said Sasaki, who attended the quarterfinal game between Mexico and Puerto Rico on March 17.
“I think this is a game anybody can win, but Puerto Rico and Mexico have very many players that are playing in the Major Leagues,” Kuriyama said of the quarterfinal that set up Mexico as Japan’s opponent Monday night. “So I think I was just looking at the game and either one will be very difficult to win.”
Mexico manager Benji Gil has yet to name a starter, but he has a deep respect for Japan’s team.
“Japan is a great team as well with huge stars. We know the stars that play in the United States, but they also have great stars playing in Japan,” Gil said on Saturday. “Our rival is the favorite again in the remaining games, but we don’t fear that. …We respect Japan a lot, of course, but we are focused. We are devoted, and we’re going to do our best, and God willing, we’ll be able to win on Monday and play on Tuesday as well.”