Japan's Sato eyes history in Women's World Cup
Pitching phenom aiming to become first back-to-back-to-back MVP
VIERA, Fla. -- Her fastball has been clocked at nearly 80 mph. She has great command and accuracy with her curveball. But her most devastating out pitch is a slider.
That's why 28-year-old right-hander Ayami Sato of Team Japan is the No. 1 women's baseball pitcher in the world. And she has the records and the hardware to back it up.
A two-time Women's Baseball World Cup MVP (2014 and '16), Sato is trying to make history. No women's baseball player has won three consecutive MVP Awards. She also has four gold medals to her resume.
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If Sato earns another MVP following this year's championship game of the World Baseball Softball Confederation (WBSC) tournament, she hopes to earn a special place in the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.
"I try not to think too much about the record," Sato said through her interpreter, Hiroko Yamada of the Baseball Federation of Japan. "I don't want to put too much pressure on myself, but I definitely want to win the award. It is my goal. I would love to have my named added to the Baseball Hall of Fame."
In the 2014 World Cup championship game, Sato tossed a seven-inning complete-game shutout in Japan's 3-0 victory over Team USA. Overall in the tournament, Sato was 2-0 with a 0.00 ERA, 10 strikeouts and no walks.
Sato was also brilliant in the 2016 championship game, firing a shutout against Team Canada. She allowed just two hits while striking out five and issuing only one walk in a 10-0 win.
That victory also marked Team Japan's fifth consecutive World Cup title (2008, '10, '12, '14, '16).
"I love to pitch because the pitcher is in the spotlight," Sato said. "I like being in control."
Sato is in her sixth season as a professional women's baseball player for Dione, a team that plays its home games in Nagoya, a city located between Tokyo and Osaka.
"It is a very competitive league," she said. "There are many good players."
Sato says she started playing baseball when she was 9 years old by playing catch with her 13-year-old brother. She credits an elementary-school teacher for showing her how to throw a slider and a curveball.
"The slider is my favorite pitch," she said. "It is my out pitch."
Two of Sato's favorite MLB pitchers are the Cubs' Yu Darvish and the Yankees' Masahiro Tanaka.
"I like these two pitchers because of their control and toughness," she said. "They are very mentally strong and can throw many different pitches."
Sato credits her daily running workouts for her success. She also said it is one of the big differences between baseball players in the U.S. and Japan.
"I am very flexible. The balance of jogging and running is very important to us in Japan," she explained. "Pitchers are always moving. Running affects pitching. The balance between running and pitching makes them better pitchers."
Even though she has been playing baseball for 20 years and has competed in the World Cup since 2010, Sato is still finding new ways to be a better pitcher.
"Physically, I am older, but I am starting to use my experience to help me," she said. "Experience can work in a lot of different ways when you are on the mound.
"World Cup play has been very special to me," she added. "I am making new friends, and every time I play in the World Cup, it helps broaden my mind and life."
As for the future? Sato would love to see women's baseball become an Olympic sport, but she doesn't think it will happen soon.
"If women's baseball were to become an Olympic sport, it would spread all over the world," she said. "The problem is that there are not enough countries that have women's baseball teams."
For now, Sato and Team Japan have set their sights on winning their fifth consecutive World Cup title. However, she and her teammates know their biggest obstacle is Team USA.
"They have a very powerful squad," she said. "Team USA is in the same position we were in when we won the world title in 2014 [when the championship game was played in Japan].
"This is the very first time USA is playing on their home field. They will have a slight edge. It will be a very exciting tournament."
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