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Takahashi Story and Dice-K Thoughts

After lots of networking and prodding, I was given the opportunity to cover a Mets-Phillies game last week for MLB.com.  The story I ended up writing was on Ken Takahashi, the New York relief pitcher who served up the game-winning homer in extra innings to Raul Ibanez.  The link is below.

http://mlb.mlb.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20090612&content_id=5283844&vkey=news_mlb&fext=.jsp&c_id=mlb

Coincidentally, Takahashi was one of a few players around when I was in the clubhouse before the game.  He conversed with a Japanese writer for about 20 minutes and passed the rest of the time hanging out with his interpreter.

Until this year, Takahashi had spent 14 seasons pitching for Hiroshima Toyo Carp in Japan’s Central League.  He was acquired and released by the Blue Jays this spring, at which point the Mets signed him to a Minor League contract.  Since his callup at the beginning of May, he was more or less just another arm in the Mets bullpen.

Outside of closers, relief pitchers go largely unnoticed by the media; they are the linemen of baseball, meaning they typically only garner attention when they screw up.

For Japanese ballplayers in the US, role or stature matters not; be it Ichiro or, well Ken Takahashi, their every move is tracked and dissected by a personal shadow of reporters from back home.  Japan is a baseball rabid culture, and when one of their own makes the move across the Pacific, they are eager to chronicle his progress.

Needless to say, Takahashi was borderline despondent in the clubhouse after the game.  When he spoke to the four or five Japanese reporters, his voice registered as barely more than a whisper; the despair in his eyes needed no translation.  He gave up a game, sure, but he also let down his true fans half a world away.  It was only then that it really hit me what a monumental transition it must be for a player to take such a leap.

In Takahashi’s case, he left everything he knew and entered a situation where all he could relate to was the game itself and the man he entrusted to be his ears and mouth.  Add to that the fact that he’s carrying the weight and expectation of an entire nation that views him as a hero, and you can appreciate the enormous burden that is placed on expatriated ballplayers from our ally in the Pacific.

That got me thinking about Dice-K Matsuzaka, and the struggles he’s endured this season.  This being his third year with the Red Sox, one would assume that he would continue to make strides and enjoy more success.  To the contrary, this has been his poorest campaign yet, as he’s gone 1-4 in seven starts with a 7.55 ERA and .372 batting average against.

While his 18-3 record and 2.90 ERA were moderately deceptive last year (he had a 5.04 BB/9 ratio, was consistently working into deep counts and seemingly always operating with multiple runners on base), he made big improvements from his rookie season, lowering his batting average against from .246 to .211 while cutting in half the number of homers he allowed (25 to 12).

Which brings us back to the World Baseball Classic this past March, when Dice-K led Japan to a defense of its title by going 3-0 with a 2.45 ERA while routinely pushing the bounds of the established pitch count limits.  He contended that the bit of extra work — he threw 14 2/3 innings in the tournament — was not the reason he landed on the disabled list with a tired arm in mid-April, and he may be partly right.

When Dustin Pedroia suffered an oblique strain in the WBC and went through a subsequent slump to begin the season, he talked about how it had been difficult playing in such an emotionally charged environment, with so much at stake,  at a time when he was traditionally just resuming everyday baseball activities under the Florida sun.

Fiery and competitive as he is, Pedroia was still just a second baseman on a US team that wasn’t exactly known for bleeding red, white and blue.

Naturally Team USA wanted to win, but let’s not mince words: This side of Cuba, there was no country more emotionally invested in the WBC than Japan.  It is their World Cup and Dice-K is their global superstar.  After his historic performance on the hill in the inaugural tournament in 2006, the pressure for him to perform honorably and succeed only grew greater.

So although physically and in terms of relative pitches thrown, he may not have overextended himself (like he asserted), there is simply no overstating the psychological toll the WBC took on Dice-K.

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