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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

SPORTS SCOPE

Japan's new wave challenged NPB's best in All-Star Series


On the surface, the All-Star Series mostly seems like an exercise without much benefit for veterans.

Jason Coskrey

Many baseball players are creatures of habit, and the All-Star festivities mostly throw their routines into chaos.

Sure, they're appreciative of the recognition and happy to give back to the fans, but it seems some older players would just as soon rest during the break as opposed to the game's distractions.

It's a bit different for younger players.

Where an older player isn't going to learn anything about himself from an All-Star Series, there are lessons to be learned by the younger set.

The games, despite being largely ceremonial, still give younger players their first real opportunity to perform on the big stage as a professional.

Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters rookie pitcher Yuki Saito is one of the few to have performed with the national spotlight on him already.

Still, the Handkerchief Prince's legendary performances at Koshien and later in college all came against players of varying skill who had largely the same level of experience as he did.

So there were even things Saito could gain from facing a few of the best the pro ranks had to offer.

"I'm glad I could feel this atmosphere," Saito said on Sunday. "I want to be able to feel it again. I'm thinking about next year, but first I want to keep my place in the rotation."

Saito appeared in the first and third game of the All-Star Series, throwing 2⅔ scoreless innings.

"I'm satisfied with the way I pitched," Saito said.

Facing nothing but the best players in Japan, even under less than normal conditions, allows younger players to test themselves and their ability.

News photo
Crash course: Yuki Saito's past experiences could help if he's called upon during the postseason. KYODO PHOTO

"In the two games I pitched, I realized how crucial it is to locate fastballs where I intend to," Hanshin Tigers rookie pitcher Daiki Enokida said. "Also, I need to have better command on my breaking balls. Hopefully, I can achieve that when the regular season resumes."

Any rookie good enough to play in the All-Star Series can expect to be thrown into the fire should his team reach the postseason.

High school and college don't prepare players for that situation.

A team's season hangs in the balance in the playoffs, and a year of hard work is deemed either a success or a failure based on the results of a handful of games in October and November.

More than school pride, there's civic identity, money and other things hanging in the balance for pro teams. That pressure is too much for some players with experience, let alone a rookie.

The precious few like Saito to have already performed under pressure have an idea of what's expected in the playoffs. But there's a world of difference in facing a fellow high schooler and staring back at a 10-time All-Star.

"It makes me happy to see these young guys get a chance to go out and perform on that stage," said Yomiuri Giants star Alex Ramirez, referring to Giants rookie Hirokazu Sawamura and second-year player Hisayoshi Chono's participation in this season's games.

"It's not just about the veteran guys. It's about these younger players showing what they can do."

At heart, the All-Star game is an exhibition, largely voted on by the fans and played for the fans.

If you look hard enough, however, it can also be a nice, brief, training run for the next generation of stars.



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