Japan’s home run phenom goes deep in US debut

June 12th, 2024

FREDERICK, Md. -- Rintaro Sasaki is legendary for his home runs in Japan. All 140 of them. Now his homer count has begun in the United States.

In the second at-bat of his U.S. debut with the Trenton Thunder in the MLB Draft League on Tuesday, Sasaki not only got his first stateside hit, he launched a two-run homer beyond the right-field wall of Nymeo Field.

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With two outs and a man on second base, Sasaki fouled off Frederick Keys starter Grant Richars' sinker and watched another one go by for a strike. Then the right-hander dealt a 90.7 mph fastball and Sasaki got all of it.

“I knew something special was going to happen, so I actually turned around and told the guys, ‘I want to admire this,' then next thing you know, he drops the head [of the bat] and he clears,” Thunder manager Adonis Smith said. “It was magical.”

The 19-year-old native of Japan didn't stop there, going 2-for-5 with a walk, three RBIs and a two runs scored while manning first base in Trenton's 11-1 win over Frederick.

Sasaki’s debut was “exciting” and “electric,” Smith said. The Thunder’s newest addition instantly lived up to the hype that already surrounds him. And his teammates even had a little fun with him, giving him the silent treatment as he returned to the dugout after his dinger. They quickly changed their tune, though, celebrating in a group huddle.

Sasaki's presence on an American team is already huge news for international baseball. Coming out of his record-setting high school campaign, Sasaki was expected by experts to go first overall in the NPB Draft. Instead, he bucked tradition and enrolled at Stanford University. Now, instead of having to wait nine years to become an international free agent or wait for his team to post him for MLB clubs -- like the Nippon-Ham Fighters did with Shohei Ohtani in 2017 -- he'll now be MLB Draft-eligible as a sophomore in 2026.

Playing in the MLB Draft League is also evidence that it's become a welcome home for international players like Sasaki, who are looking to either continue to develop their skills before college or put on a display for scouts ahead of the MLB Draft. Sasaki certainly looked ready for the Stanford campus at the plate on Tuesday.

Over the course of the game and even in batting practice, Sasaki's stance, his swing and even the sound of the ball off the bat gave glimpses into the power that broke the Japanese record for high school home runs (140) previously held by Kotaro Kiyomiya (111), who went first overall in the 2017 Nippon Professional Baseball Draft.

“I saw him launch balls off the freaking wall during BP, and honestly with what I’ve heard, I wasn’t even surprised,” said Brendan Lawson, MLB Pipeline's No. 155 Draft prospect. “It was awesome. It was amazing, but it seems like that’s kind of like every day for him.”

It might have been just another day, but it was a big one for Sasaki. He played baseball at Hanamaki Higashi High School, which counts esteemed alumni include superstar Shohei Ohtani and Blue Jays pitcher Yusei Kikuchi among its alumni, and his potential made him a celebrity back home. Even with Toronto in action on Tuesday, Kikuchi made some time to talk about Sasaki.

“I’ve never hit a home run in my life, so I don’t know what it’s like to hit a home run,” Kikuchi said via interpreter Yusuke Oshima. “When I was in NPB, I got three hits. I gave one of my bats that I got a hit with to him. I gifted it to him and told him to try to surpass me [in NPB]. He still hasn’t surpassed me, so we’ll see how he does.”

That won't come to pass in the near future, as the left-handed hitter opted to further his education and baseball career at Stanford University. Ineligible to play in official contests, the 6-foot, 250-pounder began taking classes as a pre-freshman this spring. He practiced with the team and played in simulation games.

Sasaki's family was unable to attend the U.S. debut with his father coaching in a Japanese High School championship tournament, but Lawson and the rest of the team did their best to make their new teammate comfortable.

“We’ve been here for a little longer than he has and we’re trying to make him feel as at home as we can,” Lawson said.

After the game was over, fans lined up for autographs and then trailed Sasaki to the clubhouse. They'll have more chances to see Sasaki's potential before he begins his freshman year in Stanford.

“I see a lot of things that you know he wants to get better at,” Smith said. “He knows the game very well. ... I see great things from him moving on throughout the season. And just looking forward to working with him.”

The league's season runs through Sept. 4 and every game is free to stream on MLB.TV or on MLBDraftLeague.com.