Hirano finding comfort level with D-backs
Closer candidate getting used to Major League hitters, different style in spring
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- There's a deceptive story behind a long wall of lockers in the D-backs' Spring Training clubhouse at Salt River Fields. A month ago there were uniforms and gear for about 15 players flanking the center locker. But with just over a week to play, there is one lone locker left occupied by a player competing for the Opening Day roster.
That player is Yoshihisa Hirano, a star pitcher from the Japanese Pacific League who is competing to become the D-backs' closer. The isolated look of his lone locker should not be taken as a symbol of his standing with his teammates, however. He is fitting in perfectly on the field, and he is parlaying the language of baseball into an easy camaraderie in the clubhouse.
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"My teammates have been very kind, and they don't hesitate to approach me," Hirano said, speaking through interpreter Mack Hayashi, the team's director of Pacific Rim operations. "I'm very comfortable."
The comfort level isn't always evident by spring statistics, which can be equally deceptive. Hirano has appeared in seven games, pitching seven innings and allowing six runs on nine hits while striking out six and walking none. He pitched an inning against the Angels on Tuesday, giving up a solo homer to Zack Cozart and striking out two.
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"He threw the ball well," manager Torey Lovullo said. "Aggressive fastball, good action on the split. I think he threw a couple sliders, which I know he's been working very hard on. Just made one mistake. He threw a fastball out over the plate to a good hitter, and he made him pay for it."
For Hirano, a different focus on more time in exhibition games in Major League Baseball's Spring Training forces a little adjustment on his part, but it should ultimately be to his benefit in helping him acclimate to a new league.
"In Japan there is a lot more practice, a lot more going into the bullpens, and then you go into the games," Hirano said. "Here, there's not much practice, but you're preparing with being in the game. I would maybe have five appearances in exhibition games in Japan. I've already thrown seven games here."
The heightened attention on Cactus League games gives Hirano the valuable opportunity to gauge himself against big league hitters.
"If you make a mistake, they're going to hit it, for sure," Hirano said. "I've been able to execute my pitches. Obviously, this is the first time facing all these hitters, so, whether it's a hit or I'm able to get an out, each at-bat I'm learning something."
Hirano, who saved 156 games over eight seasons in Japan after converting from a starter, is competing with Brad Boxberger, who saved 41 games for the Rays in 2015 before injuries cost him over half of his last two seasons, and Archie Bradley, who moved to the 'pen and posted a 1.73 ERA in 63 appearances last year after starting for two seasons.
"I'm looking for comfort and obviously the stuff, but all three guys have really good stuff," Lovullo said of his criteria for a closer. "I want each person to be comfortable in their role and be able to execute pitches in their role. I'm paying a lot of attention to what they all look like when they're pumping and when they're going."
Hirano said his biggest remaining challenge is to learn the hitters before Opening Day.
"Whether it's the scouting report or sitting down with the coaches, I need to learn each hitters' tendencies," he said.
It's a two-way street, and Lovullo is watching Hirano closely to learn his body language and to better understand the pitcher who could be a key cog in the D-backs 'pen.
"Yoshi's exactly where we want him to be," Lovullo said. "He's gaining confidence with each outing. We're looking for a couple good outings before the season starts."