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Rob Smaal

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It was right call, but I don't have to like it

by Rob Smaal / Staff Writer (Nov 5, 2007)

Around 9 p.m. last Thursday my cellphone started buzzing.

"Can you believe what's happening here?" a voice asked, incredulously, on the other end of the line.

It was another sportswriter from a large American news agency. Together we watched stunned as a scene unfolded that resembled a contradiction in terms: perfection with a flaw.

A text message soon followed from a man who played baseball professionally in Japan for more than five years. It was comprised of three words: "Only in Japan!"

In case you missed it, Chunichi Dragons pitcher Daisuke Yamai had just thrown eight innings of flawless baseball in Game 5 of the Japan Series. He was going against the best pitcher in Japanese baseball, Nippon-Ham Fighters ace Yu Darvish, but the heretofore unspectacular Yamai had retired every batter he faced--24 straight without anyone so much as reaching base. He had that rarest of sports animals, a perfect game, clearly within his grasp.

Yamai had thrown only 86 pitches and a packed Nagoya Dome was pumped to see him put his name in the history books alongside the now-legendary Don Larsen, a New York Yankees pitcher who in 1956 became the only man ever to throw a perfect game in the World Series (he did it against the Brooklyn Dodgers).

It would be quite an accomplishment for a guy who had never won more than six games in a season and who had spent the previous year down on the farm.

But, with his team ahead 1-0 and on the verge of clinching its first Japan Series crown since 1954, Dragons manager Hiromitsu Ochiai popped out of his dugout and waved in closer Hitoki Iwase to pitch the ninth inning.

Wow! As I watched things develop, I knew Ochiai was the kind of guy who didn't particularly care what others thought of him--a "My-Way-or-the-Shuto" kind of guy--but did he realize that Yamai was on the verge of Japanese baseball immortality?

Apparently he did, but he made the move anyway.

Iwase, one of the best closers in the game, came in and did what he usually does--he mowed down the side in order. That preserved the first perfect game in Japan Series history, only now it was no longer Yamai's perfecto, but rather a slightly diluted version known as a combined perfect game.

Yamai's effort included six strikeouts, six flyouts and a dozen groundouts, the only one of a spectacular nature being a diving stab by second-baseman Masahiro Araki on a groundball hit up the middle in the fourth inning.

Later, as I related the incident to my in-laws over some shrimp tempura, my wife--born and raised on the outskirts of Yokohama--jumped to Ochiai's defense.

"Well, you're a foreigner and you guys always think individual accomplishments are so important. Ochiai-san is Japanese so he puts the team ahead of everything else."

OK, Iwase does save 40 games a year for his club and they did end up winning the Japan Series, but, as I explained to her: "If Terry Francona lifted Josh Beckett or any of his other pitchers after eight innings with a perfect game going, there'd be a riot at Fenway and Red Sox Nation would string him up from Pesky's Pole."

"Pesky's what? Want some more shrimp?"

All right, maybe I should be having this conversation with someone a little more baseball savvy. I quickly fire off an e-mail to the smartest baseball man I know. He's sure to share my consternation at being robbed of witnessing a piece of history.

"This is the toughest situation a manager has," writes back Bobby Valentine, a man with 20 years of experience managing in Japan and the big leagues and the current Chiba Lotte Marines skipper. "The ninth inning, the score 1-0. With a perfect game it becomes almost impossible. I think all things considered (Ochiai) did the right thing--the finger (reportedly a blister had developed on Yamai's pitching hand), the player not pitching last year and only winning six this year, them not winning in 53 years, not having to go to back to Sapporo, winning at home, having a guy like Iwase to bring into the game, (Fighters leadoff hitter Hichori) Morimoto being the fourth hitter due up.

"In this game, winning is the only concern a manager has."

Well OK, when you put it like that ...

(IHT/Asahi: November 5, 2007)


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