When Nippon-Ham Fighters rookie right-hander Ryo Sakakibara got called up to the big club in May, he really had no idea what was in store for him this season.
"I was just thinking I'd be lucky to get one win this year," Sakakibara said Monday at a reception for the NPB "Golden Rookies" at a downtown Tokyo hotel.
He did a lot better than that. Sakakibara got his first win June 15, and things just seemed to snowball from there. He ended up going 10-1 on the season, mostly in long relief out of the bullpen. His only loss this year was the only game he started. The softspoken 25-year-old from Aichi Prefecture accumulated 16 hold points and posted a 2.63 ERA in 39 appearances.
When a starter got rocked early, in came Sakakibara. When a starter took a comebacker off the knee, Sakakibara to the rescue. When the Fighters needed another starter and moved veteran reliever Masao Kida into the role, it was Sakakibara who filled Kida's shoes in the pen. In short, whenever an opportunity presented itself, Sakakibara was there to take advantage.
"Every time I went out there, I really just focused on each pitch," said Sakakibara, who was named the 2010 Pacific League Rookie of the Year. "I didn't set a goal of 10 wins or anything like that. I just took each opportunity as it came up and tried to make the most of it."
Sakakibara was a No. 2 draft pick of the Fighters in 2008 out of Kansai International University, where he was a starter. He also spent some time in the industrial league prior to playing college ball and got into 10 games with Nippon-Ham in 2009, which enabled him to maintain his rookie status this season.
As for next season, Sakakibara says he will do whatever is asked of him.
"I used to start so I won't say I never want to start again, but really I just want to fill whatever role the team needs me to," said Sakakibara, who will take on another new challenge next week when he gets married.
Sakakibara and Central League Rookie of the Year Hisayoshi Chono were being honored Monday by Sagawa Transport after being named their respective leagues top rookies last month.
For Yomiuri Giants outfielder Chono, Monday was a day of celebration for a couple of reasons. Not only was he being honored for his 2010 on-field exploits, but it was also his 26th birthday.
"I'm honored to receive this award," said Chono, who hit .288 with 19 homers and 52 RBIs in 430 at-bats this season. "I'm the guy standing up here being honored, but it would not have been possible without my teammates, manager, coaches and the rest of the Giants staff."
NPB Commissioner Ryozo Kato told the two winners to enjoy their moment in the sun.
"This is a special day because this is the 'kanreki' (60th) edition of the award since 1950 (when the two-league system started)," Kato said. "Please enjoy this award. After all, you will only be rookies once in your careers."