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THE HOT CORNER: When good stuff is not enough

by Jim Allen (Apr 7, 2011)

We all want to see pitchers perform amazing tricks with the ball, four-seamers that seem to defy the force of gravity, picture-perfect sliders and hooks that freeze batters and leave them shaking their heads. But it's not always about having the best stuff.

Sure, it helps to have a plus pitch. Yet, so many things go into sustained success on the mound that it's often difficult to tell who will succeed and who won't just by looking at guys' best pitches.

A young man with late life on his fastball and a good hard slider, like Hiroshima rookie Yuya Fukui, should be a cinch to succeed, but one never knows.

On Sunday, the Carp were at Jingu Stadium in a charity game against the Tokyo Yakult Swallows. Although Hiroshima was on the road, Fukui was at home.

For the past two seasons as Waseda University's No. 2 starter, the right-hander had regularly taken the mound there on Sunday afternoons. In his homecoming, however, Fukui was beaten up for five runs in five innings.

Despite excellent movement on his fastball, Fukui either couldn't or wouldn't throw strikes. It was hard to tell what was going on. Was it simply a lack command or rather a lack of confidence.

After all, it's fairly common for amateur pitchers of quality to get a rude awakening when turning pro.

Suddenly facing batters who are better at hitting mistakes and making contact on good pitches, it's easy for rookies to begin doubting their stuff. Some try to adjust by pitching away from contact and nibbling, trying to throw pitches out of the zone and hoping batters go after them.

That's how Fukui looked Sunday.

He fell behind in counts, walking five of the 23 batters he faced, including two in the fourth inning. With no outs in the inning, Yakult's Ryoji Aikwa belted a two-run, bases-loaded double, and new import Wladimir Balentien followed with a three-run homer.

"That my walks led to runs is an issue I need to address," Fukui said after his stint. "I understand that if I can throw mostly strikes, I can keep teams from scoring."

He knows what he needs to do, but so far he's not doing it.

Fukui, who walked three batters in four innings in a March 16 Western League game, will get more chances to learn. Despite the poor showing, Carp skipper Kenjiro Nomura said he won't alter his starting rotation before Opening Day on April 12.

The pitcher has the stuff he needs to succeed. After all, a lot of guys have had tremendous careers with less to work with. Now it's a matter of Fukui's learning to fearlessly pound the zone.

This is not an easy adjustment, and given Fukui's past, it will be interesting to see how he handles it. Although the 23-year-old is just entering his rookie season, he had an opportunity to turn pro in 2006.

As a third-year pitcher for Matsuyama's Saibi High School in 2004, Fukui had a stellar season. He started and won the spring invitational final at Koshien. That August, he started and lost the final of the summer national championship.

Instead of signing as the Yomiuri Giants' fourth pick in the 2005 high school draft, Fukui became the first player in 25 years to turn his back on the Kyojin.

That decision would have made more sense had he already committed to the university of his choice, but that was not the case. Fukui had his eye on Waseda--but by the time he made up his mind, it was too late.

A 17-year-old pitcher of his caliber must have had numerous other options at that point, but he seemed stubbornly set on Waseda. After working out on his own for a year, Fukui entered the school in 2007 and began to get his career back on track.

Although he played second fiddle in university to Yuki Saito, Waseda's poster boy and drawing card, Hiroshima scouts rated Fukui as the school's second-best pitcher after Tatsuya Oishi but ahead of the Handkerchief Prince.

When the Carp failed to win Oishi's rights in a six-way draft-day lottery, they made Fukui their alternate first-round pick, and this time he signed.

Now it is up to Fukui to get his game up to speed.

Given this pitcher's penchant for perseverance, he should get there, although it might take a while.


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