Although Yoshihisa Naruse's recent season totals have not matched those of his breakthrough season, he says he's grown a lot in three years.
The Chiba Lotte Marines lefty, who started Game 6 of the Japan Series on Saturday night against Chen Wei-yin of the Chunichi Dragons, has come a long way since he was the talk of the Pacific League in 2007.
That year, Naruse went 16-1 in 2007 but fell flat in the clincher of that year's Pacific League Climax Series second stage. He has gone 8-6, 11-5 and 13-11 since. This autumn, however, the lefty has become a certified big-game hunter.
"Taking the season as a whole, I feel I have a little more room for error," Naruse said Wednesday at Chiba Marine Stadium. "I've been able to be less concerned about extraneous things. I just want to take the mound and pitch without worrying about this and that.
"The best thing is to just work hard and pitch the way I'm capable of and not think, 'It would be great if I could pitch like that, or it would be great if I could shut them down like that.'
"If I can just be myself and take care of my job, that's plenty."
Since a no-decision in the opener of the PLCS first stage at Seibu Dome--a seven-inning, two-run effort the Marines won in extra innings--the 25-year-old has been taking care of business.
Naruse entered Series Game 6 having reeled off three straight postseason wins. After going 0-4 against the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks during the regular season, Naruse pitched a pair of complete-game victories to book the Marines' spot in the Series. He followed that with a win in his Series debut in Game 1, allowing two runs in five innings, lowering his career postseason ERA to 1.90 and improving his record to 4-1.
In his lone postseason defeat, Naruse allowed four runs in 3-2/2 innings in a loss that kept the Marines from reaching the 2007 Series.
"At that time, I was thinking about the team, how badly I wanted to contribute, but not really about my own pitching," he said.
"Since then, I have come to focus on my pitching, feeling confident that is how I can carry my share of the team's load."
Naruse entered the 2007 Climax clincher having barely known defeat on the farm or on the first team.
"Actually, I didn't feel bad at all [in that game]," he said. "It would have been possible [that season] to think I was pitching over my head, but I felt there was nothing unusual [about my success]. In that respect, I was somewhat mistaken. And that caused problems later."
What he has learned since is that pitching is in one sense like boxing: every pitcher gets hit.
"This has been a very difficult season, but it's amazing how many things I picked up," he said. "I've given up home runs on good pitches. If I pitch the way I'm supposed to and opposing batters get hits, I can live with it."
Going into Fukuoka for the final stage of the Climax Series against the PL champions, Naruse found himself strangely calm against a team that had beaten him like a drum all year.
"After we got past Seibu in the first stage and I was pitching against SoftBank, I was thinking, 'We're a third-place team, and if we lose people would take it for granted.' All of a sudden, I became very relaxed," he said.
"Against Seibu, I may have felt we had to win. But against SoftBank, I thought that if I pitched the way I'm normally capable of, I could be satisfied even if we lost. That thought, too, helped me relax."