VIERA, Fla. -- It's hard to imagine a time when Ayami Sato was just an average pitcher who struggled to find consistency when she took the mound.Today, Sato is well-established as the best female pitcher in the world, a label she solidified, again, with a dominant performance in Japan's 6-0
VIERA, Fla. -- It's hard to imagine a time when Ayami Sato was just an average pitcher who struggled to find consistency when she took the mound.
Today, Sato is well-established as the best female pitcher in the world, a label she solidified, again, with a dominant performance in Japan's 6-0 win over Chinese Taipei in the Women's Baseball World Cup finals on Friday. Sato, in pitching her team to its sixth World Cup title and extending its tournament win streak to 30 games, was named the MVP for an unprecedented third time.
Several years ago, however, when she was a high school player, she was -- by her account -- nothing particularly special. Then, she went to college and connected with a wise pitching coach, who convinced her to stop putting so much pressure on herself, and just have fun.
"It broadened my mind more and more," she said. "And I learned how to enjoy it."
The transformation was immediate. Instead of worrying about perfection, she focused on the sheer pleasure of being on the mound. Soon, she was a force in international play. Today, Sato is a national celebrity, an icon to young female ballplayers worldwide, and she even has to field the occasional "do you think you could pitch in the Major Leagues?" inquiry.
That's what happens when you throw 80 mph with two dominant secondary pitches, including a slider that leaves batters baffled.
Sato found the perfect formula in Friday's finale, scattering six hits over five innings, striking out six. She did not issue a single walk.
"I can't find the words," her manager, Megumi Kitta said, asked to comment on the performance. "My English is not very good. But my players are just perfect."
Following a closing ceremony during which medals were issued to Japan (gold), Chinese Taipei (silver) and Canada (bronze), the party was on in the outfield, where Japan's players -- many of whom are underage -- sprayed seltzer water on each other and danced in celebration.
Exceptional teamwork was lauded repeatedly by the players and their manager, with little emphasis on individual performances.
"When I'm at bat, I think, 'I have to pass the game to the next batter, next batter, next batter,'" said Iori Miura, who was 1-for-2 and drove in two runs. "I'm trying to not only have my best performance, but I'm always thinking that I have to pass it to the next batters. The other batters think the same thing, and that works very well for this tournament."
That's putting it mildly. Japan finished World Cup play with a 9-0 record. Sato is credited with three of those wins, having allowed one earned run over a cumulative 19 innings, for a 0.37 ERA.
Sato expressed happiness to win for her teammates, her family and her friends, and teared up when talking about her father, who is recovering from an illness that confined him to a hospital and prevented him from traveling to watch the World Cup.
Though weakened from his illness, he did manage to send his daughter an electronic note wishing her well.
"He couldn't write very well," Sato said. "But he wrote, 'Do your best.'"
Clearly, Sato heeded her father's advice.
"I really wanted to win for him," she said. "I got so many messages from family and friends. I really wanted to win, and thank them. I'm happy we made it."
Alyson Footer is a national correspondent for MLB.com. Follow her on Twitter @alysonfooter.