The official WBC ball was always held in the right hand of the "Reiwa Monster".

Camping in Ishigaki Island, Okinawa in February this year.

Focusing on pitcher Aki Sasaki (21), we can see the thorough WBC measures of pitcher Sasaki, who is preparing to become the power of the Japanese national team.

(Sports News Section Reporter Yoshio Homma)

Before the WBC, pitcher Sasaki's problem is...

What kind of pitching will Sasaki, who achieved a perfect game last season as the youngest in history, show in the WBC, where he will face off against foreign players head-on?

There are probably many fans who expect him to strike out one after another from strong hitters with straight balls over 160 km and sharp breaking balls.

For pitcher Sasaki, the touchstone for the WBC was the warm-up game for the Japan national team held in November last year.

Pitcher Sasaki, who started the game against Australia, managed to get through the 4th inning without allowing a run, but he was not satisfied with his 4 hits and 1 four-ball.

One reason was the ball.

The official ball of the WBC was used in this match.

I was concerned that there was a difference between the "how to put your finger" when throwing a curve ball with this official ball and the professional baseball ball that you are used to handling.

(Pitcher Aki Sasaki)

“Because the seams are wide, the ball feels bigger, and I thought that the way the curve ball would change and the trajectory would change. "

In fact, Yakult's Yuhei Nakamura, who was the catcher at that time, also said that he felt that the fork was missing.

Until it fits in your hand

4 months left until the competition.

From here, pitcher Sasaki's days of preparation for the WBC began.

First, pitcher Sasaki, who started by getting familiar with the WBC's official ball, practiced using the official ball at "10: 0" in voluntary training during the off period.

And that thorough attitude will continue even after the camp in February.

Of course, the official ball of the WBC is also used for the catch ball that is held at the beginning of practice.

Since pitcher Sasaki was the only player from Lotte to participate in the WBC, his opponent was always the bullpen catcher.

Even when the pitchers knocked, pitcher Sasaki made a “request” and had the ball changed every time it was his turn.

In addition, he held the official WBC ball in his right hand even when he was moving to practice and stretching.

As a pitcher who values ​​the feel of his fingertips, is it a manifestation of his feelings of trying to get used to the ball, sparing little time?

When I asked him about his true intentions with a little force, pitcher Sasaki answered without hesitation.

(Pitcher Aki Sasaki)

"Did I have (the ball)? I'm unconscious."

Adjust earlier than usual, polish the breaking ball

For pitcher Sasaki, the camp, which is his fourth year as a professional, progressed with an unusually quick adjustment compared to previous camps that prioritized physical development.

49 balls when entering the bullpen for the first time on the second day of camp.

He entered the bullpen with 63 pitches on Day 4, one day out.

Two days later, on Day 7, he threw in 40 pitches.

With the mindset of “throwing numbers anyway,” I was constantly checking the breaking balls.

About half of the pitches in the bullpen were curveballs, and after confirming the values ​​using a device that measures the ball's rotation axis and the amount of change, we communicated with the catcher to check how the ball turned.

Already at this time, it seemed that he was beginning to feel a certain response to the official ball of the WBC.

(Pitcher Aki Sasaki)

“I feel like I can handle the changing ball more than I did in last year’s warm-up game.

Fastest 160 km before joining!

The result of adjustment is the result

The practice match against Yakult held on February 15 showed the results of pitcher Sasaki's steady adjustments.

It was two days before joining the training camp of the national team.

In this game, starting pitcher Sasaki shows perfect pitching.

He assembles his pitches based on "a slider for the right batter and a fork for the left batter", and strikes out three consecutive strikeouts in the first inning.

In addition, the first batter in the second inning was Munetaka Murakami, the youngest triple crown winner.

After pushing in with two breaking balls from one ball, he finally strikes out on a straight with a low in-course.

The ball speed marked the fastest 160 km on this day.

(Pitcher Aki Sasaki)

“It was my first real match, so I was able to throw it with a sense of unity. The ball wasn’t as rough as it was at this time last year, and I think it was good that I was able to get a whiff with a curve ball. I am

Sasaki's WBC countermeasures, which started in November last year, had a clear result in this game, and in fact, Sasaki was getting another response.

That is learning a new slider.

Among the changing balls that robbed him of whiffs in this practice game, the slider was a ball that curved sharply in the vertical direction compared to the slider that he had thrown until last season.

Pitcher Sasaki was already aiming for even greater heights as he took steps to get used to the official pitch.

To seize the "world's best"

Lotte manager Rihito Yoshii, who is also a pitching coach for the Japan national team, believes that Sasaki's WBC experience will lead to further growth.

(Lotte Manager Rihito Yoshii)

“I think that playing against the world will give us a different view, so I hope that we will use the tournament to grow even further. I believe that

The growth curve of the "Reiwa monster" that does not know to stay.

Something new that right hand grasps through the battle against the world.

Expectations are only rising.

(Pitcher Aki Sasaki)

“I want to keep pitching in actual games and bring my best pitching to the pitch. At places where the world’s top players gather, I will show my strength and contribute to the team’s victory. I want to

The WBC may have great significance for the future of pitcher Sasaki, but when I asked him what he was most looking forward to, he answered as follows.

(Pitcher Aki Sasaki)

“I would like to talk to Mr. Yu Darvish and Mr. Shohei Otani. I have to think about something too.”

That smile was just like that of a young baseball player in front of the star player he admires.

WBC 2023 News/Schedule/Results [NHK special site]