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Hard Drives: Yamamoto's quest sparks Dragon fire

by John E. Gibson (May 28, 2008)

Screwballs, sinkers, sliders, fastballs, changeups and curves. Masahiro Yamamoto might have even gotten some strikes by tossing a few kitchen sinks toward home in his 25 seasons with the Chunichi Dragons.

The epitome of the crafty southpaw, Yamamoto is approaching 200 wins, needing four more to earn a place in the Meikyukai, or Golden Players Club. While he may be getting close, he looks like he has slowed down to smell every rose he sees as he coasts toward the milestone.

Yamamoto, who will turn 43 on Aug. 11, played the role of sidekick to Shinji Imanaka in the '90s Chunichi shutdown duo of lefties that tormented the Central League. Yamamoto won the Sawamura Award as Japan's top hurler in 1994, a year after Imanaka took the honor.

Yamamoto won 49 games from 1992-94, including a career-best 19 in the final year of that stretch.

But he has been hit-and-miss in recent years, mostly because of an assortment of injuries that all but matches his arsenal of pitches.

He started out this season by walking off the Tokyo Dome mound on April 3 with a strained back that put him on the shelf for more than a month.

This came after he was supposed to surpass the 200-win mark last season. But he went an unforeseeable 2-10 in 19 appearances and was nowhere to been found when the Dragons went on to win their first Japan Series in 53 years.

This season, as he inches toward the magic mark, Yamamoto swears up and down that the Golden Players Club is not on his radar.

"I'm not worried about 200 wins," Yamamoto said after his first victory of the season, a 10-3 decision over Hiroshima at Nagoya Dome on May 7.

"I just want to contribute to the team and try to help us win games."

He might not be worried about reaching the milestone, but his teammates and coaches are certainly thinking about it.

In fact, it was utter mound madness the first time Yamamoto left the hill with the lead.

After he hurled six scoreless innings against the Carp in his second start of the season, he stepped aside with a 5-0 lead. Every reliever who succeeded him pitched like he was trying to preserve a perfect game in the Japan Series.

"The pitchers who follow him to the mound in games when he leaves with the lead--especially if they get hit and give up runs and the lead, and he loses a chance at a win--I think that's really on their minds," Chunichi pitching coach Shigekazu Mori recently told Hard Drives.

"They all want to help him win. Of course, if the offense put a few more runs on the board, it would take away some of that pressure.

"But I don't think they need to think about the pressure."

Yamamoto figures to need help getting his wins. He hasn't thrown a complete-game shutout since Sept. 16, 2006, when at 41 years 1 month, he became the oldest member of the no-hit club by shutting down the Hanshin Tigers.

Yamamoto won 13 games in 2004 to help Chunichi win the CL title, but he has managed just 22 wins since. Last season saw him fall victim to inconsistency, which had him mostly down on the farm.

But Yamamoto is 3-0 this year after three quality starts, and the Dragons want to give everything they can--within reason--to keep his flame burning.

"If he gets to 200 wins this year, it means that the team is also doing well, and that's a good situation all around," Mori said.

"It's a wonderful personal record for him to put each of those wins together, but we can't sacrifice the goal of the team just to help him get to his goal.

"His career could end at 200 wins--you never know. But we'll do what we can to support him."

The fire still burns even as the oldest member of the Dragons rotation--the probable Chunichi starter tonight against the Pacific League's fifth-place Orix Buffaloes at Nagoya Dome--tries to go 4-0.

The victory mark is motivation for Yamamoto to keep working hard, and his teammates seem to have gotten caught up in a victory protection program in what promises to be an exciting drive toward an honored milestone.


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