As No. 1 starters go, Yuki Saito isn't big in stature, he doesn't have big numbers and can't come close to the intimidation factor Yu Darvish brought to the mound for the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters.
But the 1.76-meter righty does have a big name, big-time fan support, and he has built an enormous amount of confidence through his first four starts.
Saito, 3-1 with a 1.16 ERA, is still allowing a lot of base runners--36 combined hits and walks in 25 innings. He staggered through the preseason, but since being named Opening Day starter, the second-year hurler has grown into the role with four straight quality starts of six or more innings with three or fewer runs allowed.
Saito hasn't made drastic changes to the mechanics that saw him put up mostly mediocre numbers last year and through the preseason. But his numbers so far are one reason the front-running Fighters have the lowest Pacific League in ERA at 1.63.
"I changed my form a little bit--I don't bring the ball back as far as I did before," he said Tuesday at Tokyo Dome before the Fighters lost to the Chiba Lotte Marines 2-1. Saito didn't credit the slight adjustment in his delivery for his first career complete-game victory on Opening Day or for his first shutout last week. He pointed to the mental aspect of pitching.
"I've been able to focus and not get rattled on the mound. But it's nothing in particular that I've worked on--this has all happened naturally."
Fighters pitching coach Masato Yoshii tells a different story.
"He has surpassed our expectations," Yoshii admitted. "It seems like he just knows how to pitch when he's in trouble. There are a number of times in games that you think, 'Oh, boy. How's this going to turn out?' But in the end, he keeps us in the game and he's good at doing that."
Yoshii said Saito put in the offseason work necessary to raise his game and the Fighters were just waiting for the success to follow.
"Since last year, he has done his best to do all the work he is supposed to do to improve himself on the mound," Yoshii said.
"So we expected him to get good results at some point, even if he didn't do well in the opener. But all of a sudden, on Opening Day, he put it together."
Yoshii said the 23-year-old Waseda University graduate hasn't changed his repertoire or mesmerized batters with pitch selection. For Saito, whose fastball hangs out in the mid-140s kph, it's all about movement.
"He has been working to improve his fastball and we're seeing those results now," Yoshii said.
"He has more spin and he's following through much better. And his offspeed stuff last year wasn't sharp, but he's got more arm action now and people are starting to swing and miss his breaking pitches."
Saito hasn't missed when it comes to facing the best competition. He has gone up against opponents' No. 1 starters four times, being an Opening Day starter, and Yoshii said the team was concerned about how that might impact his record. But they gave him the ball anyway.
"We were worried about that aspect, too," Yoshii admitted, pausing a moment before adding, "but he's not competing against the other pitcher, per se. He's throwing against the batters. So we just believed that our lineup would produce some runs."
The Fighters don't seem to miss Darvish at all, and Yoshii said they weren't planning to use his departure as an excuse to lose.
"We didn't come into this season worried about being without Darvish," he said. "We knew we had a lot of other talented pitchers, so losing one guy wasn't going to make us a bad club."
Saito has stepped up and the Fighters, who finished second behind the reigning Japan Series-winning Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks last year, have more than a puncher's chance to win the PL this season.