MLB squad tips caps following Japan's no-no
TOKYO -- Upon selecting pitchers for his Japan All-Star Series roster, Samurai Japan manager Hiroki Kokubo delivered each of them packages of American baseballs. Kokubo's pitchers would be using Major League Baseball's firmer, slicker baseballs throughout the series, and he wanted Takahiro Norimoto and Co. to grow accustomed to the change.
Compare that style of preparation to what MLB players have endured during their Japan All-Star Series -- a trip halfway around the world, massive jet lag, aging stadium facilities and an off-field schedule that leaves precious little time to sleep -- and the circumstances behind Samurai Japan's combined no-hitter in a 4-0 win on Saturday begin to take shape.
"That's the difficulty of it," said Rays outfielder Ben Zobrist, who finished 0-for-4 against Norimoto and a group of three relievers in Japan All-Star Series Game 3. "We're not at our best right now, which unfortunately is probably why we're not playing as well as we could be. They're obviously geared up for this."
One of Japan's rising stars at age 23, Norimoto was "right on point" Saturday, in Zobrist's estimation. Dialing his fastball regularly into the upper-90s, Norimoto mixed in a breaking ball down in the zone to rack up six strikeouts over five perfect innings.
"That was a little bit out of the ordinary," Zobrist said. "The other guys were throwing 93 or so, but he got it up there a little bit more with his fastball. And he combined it. He threw offspeed pitches, too, and he threw them in the bottom of the zone. I didn't see much over the middle of the plate. I don't think anybody really did."
Even after Norimoto departed due to series pitch-count rules (the limit is 80), relievers Yuki Nishi, Kazuhisa Makita and Yuji Nishino flabbergasted MLB's hitters.
"They're killing us with breaking balls and splits," Indians first baseman Carlos Santana said. "I think they've dominated us with that."
Lucas Duda finally drew a leadoff walk to break up the perfect game in the sixth inning, and three other big leaguers reached base -- two of them also on walks and Robinson Cano on a hit-by-pitch that knocked him out for the rest of the Japan Series.
By the ninth inning, the Tokyo Dome's 46,084 fans were on their feet, screaming, cheering, some struggling to believe. When Samurai Japan second baseman Ryosuke Kikuchi made a diving stop to his left to rob Santana of a hit for the game's 26th out, the combined no-hitter seemed inevitable. When Justin Morneau hit a routine grounder to first base for the 27th, it became reality.
"It's too good to be true," Norimoto said in a statement. "I wanted to see how my pitches would work against MLB hitters. The fact [Motohiro] Shima was catching made me feel at ease, and I was able to perform as usual. The atmosphere at the ballpark was really nice. It was my best outing of my career."
It has already been a pretty decent career for Norimoto, who posted a 3.02 ERA in 202 2/3 innings this summer for Nippon Professional Baseball's Rakuten Golden Eagles. Along with Kenta Maeda, who won Game 1 of the Japan Series, and Shohei Otani, who will start Game 5 on Tuesday, Norimoto has established himself as one of Japan's most promising stars.
"The story tonight is the hit column with a zero in it," MLB manager John Farrell said. "Norimoto was outstanding. He was very efficient, a powerful fastball, and very good late action to both his split and his slider or cutter.
"He attacked the strike zone. When you have that power of 94-96 with some late action, he's a very difficult pitcher to face. Even in some fastball counts, he did an outstanding job of locating his fastball down at the bottom of the strike zone for a couple of called strikes to get back in the count. On a night like tonight, you tip your hat to a very good pitcher."
MLB has been doing little but hat tipping throughout the five-game Japan Series, which it officially lost by dropping each of the first three games. Though this entire series is an exhibition at its core, Duda noted that the shame of a no-hitter is still uncomfortable in any context. So while MLB's players have plenty of ready-made excuses at their disposal, they have shied away from leaning on them.
Instead, they have looked to Norimoto and a wave of American-baseball-wielding Japanese pitchers who have been even better than advertised.
"It's tough getting your timing back in one day, but hats off to them," outfielder Dexter Fowler said. "They pitched their butts off. We're trying the best we can."