Yamamoto near perfect in stellar spring debut

February 28th, 2024

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- On Tuesday, the Dodgers finally got a chance to enjoy the first part of their billion dollar plan as Shohei Ohtani exceeded the hype of his first game with them by launching a two-run homer in his last at-bat of the game.

A day later, it was ’s turn to show he’s worth the anticipation and hype that comes with being the most expensive pitcher in the history of the game. Though it was just a Spring Training outing, Yamamoto showed glimpses of exactly why he was one of the most sought after free agents ever.

In his first Cactus League start Wednesday against the Rangers at Surprise Stadium, the Japanese phenom tossed two scoreless innings, striking out three and allowing just one hit in what ended up being the Dodgers’ first loss of the spring, a 6-4 defeat. Yamamoto threw 19 pitches, 16 for strikes, displaying his wide arsenal of pitches.

“There’s a part of me that’s relieved,” Yamamoto said through an interpreter. “From here, there will be more innings and I’m wondering how that will go. But as far as today’s game was concerned, I thought it went well.”

Yamamoto’s first opponent was All-Star infielder Marcus Semien. The right-hander started Semien with a 95 mph fastball that was fouled back. His next pitch was a wicked 79 mph curveball that had Semien out in front, barely fouling it off. Yamamoto ultimately won the battle with a 96 mph fastball in the top of the zone, striking him out swinging.

Two pitches later, Yamamoto gave up a hard-hit single to rising star Evan Carter. That was quickly erased, however, as he threw three consecutive 96 mph fastballs to Wyatt Langford, the last of which was rolled over to Max Muncy at third to start an inning-ending double play. Yamamoto needed only 11 pitches to get through the first frame, throwing just two balls out of the zone.

Yamamoto saved his best for last. In the second inning, he started 2022 American League Silver Slugger Award winner Nathaniel Lowe with a 94 mph heater. The next pitch was a 74 mph looping curveball that Lowe watched land in the zone. Yamamoto then finished Lowe off with his signature splitter, which got an ugly swing.

“Good stuff, I mean, that's obvious,” said Rangers manager Bruce Bochy. “That's why they signed him. But this is the first time these guys had a look at him, and I think they all were impressed with the kind of stuff he has.”

After getting Jonah Heim to fly out on the first pitch of the at-bat, it was Leody Taveras’ turn to get the Yamamoto experience. Taveras fouled off a pair of heaters before also going down swinging on a 91 mph splitter.

In total, Yamamoto threw 11 four-seam fastballs and was clocked between 94-96 mph. He threw three curveballs, all of which went for strikes. Yamamoto also threw the splitter and cutter, showing why he won the Eiji Sawamura Award three consecutive years in Japan's Nippon Professional Baseball league.

“It’s an exhibition game, so I was able to pitch with a good kind of nervousness,” Yamamoto said. “I made a concerted effort to calm down.”

As Yamamoto walked off the mound in the second, he was greeted by a standing ovation from the Dodgers fans in attendance. He was also welcomed with a lot of smiles inside the dugout, particularly from Ohtani, who wasn’t in the lineup but still made the trip to watch Yamamoto make his first appearance in the United States as a Major Leaguer.

“I didn’t think he would come, so it made me really happy,” Yamamoto smiled. “[He said] that it was passable.”

Like Ohtani, Yamamoto will get a lot of attention this season. After getting a 12-year, $325 million deal this offseason despite never throwing a pitch in the Majors, there was naturally some skepticism. But he passed his first test with flying colors, something the Dodgers are banking on him doing more often than not.

“He got to use his entire pitch mix. He was pounding the strike zone. He got a lot of swing and miss. He was efficient,” said Dodgers manager Dave Roberts. “I think for us, Shohei making his debut [on Tuesday], Yoshinobu making his debut today, very, very exciting times right now.”