After 28 seasons of pitching at Japan's highest level, taking the mound shouldn't stir up butterflies. But if your future in the game is hanging by a thread, even big things like 224 career wins aren't much comfort.
"I was so nervous, I could hardly believe it," Kimiyasu Kudo said of his 11-pitch, 2010 debut with the Saitama Seibu Lions on July 20 in Fukuoka.
The 47-year-old, released last autumn by the Yokohama BayStars, had been sidelined since March with stiffness in his left elbow and lower back. For four months, Kudo worked his way into shape in the Eastern League. When activated on July 18, Kudo's arm was ready, but his confidence lagged behind.
"There was some doubt. The conditions are completely different from the minors," he told The Hot Corner on Tuesday at Seibu Dome.
Trailing the Hawks 2-0 in the seventh inning with one out, one on and three left-handed hitters in a row due up, manager Hisanobu Watanabe called on Kudo to put out the fire. Before a crowd of 35,702 at Fukuoka Yahoo! Japan Dome, where he had pitched for five seasons and in 1999 won the Pacific League MVP Award with the Hawks, Kudo kept his former club from scoring, retiring two of the three batters he faced.
Once Japan's hardest-throwing lefty, Kudo's fastest pitch was a 2-2, 138 kph fastball to the first man he faced. Instead of chalking up strikeout No. 2,853, Kudo ran the count full before issuing his 1,125th career walk.
"I wasn't able to decide it with that pitch," he told reporters after the game. "But that is where my game is right now."
Where he is now is with his original club for the first time since leaving as a free agent in 1994. Kudo first joined the Lions out of high school in 1982. That was two years before Watanabe began his pitching career with Seibu and eight years before current pitching coach Tetsuya Shiozaki signed with Seibu out of the corporate leagues.
"He's the best pitcher we have to get lefties out for an inning," Shiozaki was quoted as saying in Nihon Keizai Shimbun's online edition on Wednesday.
On Tuesday, when the heat and humidity transformed Seibu Dome into the world's largest sauna, Kudo was busting his butt in practice with his teammates, many of them half his age.
"I'm not surprised," Watanabe said. "I pitched alongside him for many years, so I know how hard he works. Of course, we're only using him for one inning at a time so he can manage [that kind of practice]."
During his time with the Yomiuri Giants (2000 to 2006), Kudo told The Hot Corner that many older pitchers with sound arms retire because Japan's practices are too demanding. Yet Kudo eats it up in exchange for the chance to play.
When Kudo returned from running in the outfield on Tuesday, he joked about the heat, pretending to stumble from fatigue. He looked happy to be home.
Back in April, when Kudo's comeback was still just a possibility, he received a visit from former major leaguer Randy Johnson. The Cooperstown-bound lefty showed up at Seibu's minor league facility on April 17 to give Kudo a boost.
"We've worked out at the same facility in Arizona for many years," Kudo said. "He had some commitments in Japan, but he did come all the way out here to see me. Imagine a 300-game winner doing that. It was huge, really special.
"We used to have this friendly competition, about who would pitch the longest. Finally his knees and back wouldn't allow him to keep going. As I continue, I want to work even harder, because I feel like I'm pitching for him, too."
Ranked 13th on Japan's all-time win list, the 1.76-meter Kudo stands head and shoulders above the pitchers whose careers started after offensive levels increased sharply in the late 1970s. Because of this, Kudo has to be considered among Japan's greatest pitchers ever.
Watanabe has said, however, that Japan's oldest active player will only remain active as long as he gets outs.
Thus, it was no surprise that pitching out of a jam last week in Fukuoka was an emotional moment for Kudo.
"I was really happy," he said. "I've come this far. To be able to go to the mound and do that was proof, proof that I could keep pitching."