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HARD DRIVES: Preservation is No. 1 for saves leader

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HARD DRIVES: Preservation is No. 1 for saves leader

by John E. Gibson (Jul 27, 2011)

It seems like the Chunichi Dragons' quiet closer Hitoki Iwase has been able to hide in the limelight for years.

The lefty has been in the high-profile, high-pressure position of closing out games for 12-plus seasons, but has managed to avoid the media microscope.

The Aichi Prefecture native has toed the rubber day after day without a menacing moniker like "Daimajin," which Kazuhiro Sasaki earned when he was with the Yokohama BayStars and took to the Seattle Mariners. Iwase is also without a distinguishing/funky delivery or a trip to the major leagues like former Yakult Swallows sidearming save master Shingo Takatsu.

The 36-year-old doesn't really fit the megastar closer profile: The eccentric drama king with uncontrollable urges to seek attention or a habit for elbowing his way into the spotlight. Instead, Iwase has--for the most part--been a head-down, keep-out-of-trouble guy who has to plan for chronic pain with the same vigor he prepares for batters in late-game situations.

Iwase, who has been battling a balky back over most of his career, broke Takatsu's all-time saves record on June 16 by notching No. 287 in a 5-2 home win over the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks. He retired three All-Stars--Yuichi Honda, Seiichi Uchikawa and Hiroki Kokubo--in succession against the Pacific League front-runners, one of his best efforts this year.

But along with saving games, Iwase has had to resort to various methods to preserve his career, specifically keeping that bad back in good form.

The long train and airplane rides cause him discomfort, and the way Dragons head coach Kazushige Mori puts it, the hurler could keep a hospital's worth of doctors busy for a year.

"He has problems everywhere," said Mori, who joined the club as the pitching coach when Hiromitsu Ochiai took over as skipper in 2004 and immediately placed the pitcher at the back of the bullpen.

"His neck, his lower back, his upper back, his elbow, his shoulder, his knees--he's got a specialist for everything. If one area goes bad, there's a doctor for that. If he has problems in another area, there's a doctor for that," Mori said about the eight-time All-Star.

"Despite that, he hasn't had to take a lot of time off. If you give him a couple of days off once in a while, he's OK.

"Only one time, in 2004, he slipped in the bathroom and broke a bone in his foot during spring training. That kept him out at the start, but he was back fairly quickly."

Iwase, whose killer slider has been the cornerstone of his success, didn't let the break curtail his first year as closer, notching 22 saves in the new role. He set the single-season record the next year, nailing down 46.

"The [all-time] saves record is awesome for him," Mori said. "It's not something that can easily be done."

As one might guess, the taciturn Iwase didn't pat himself on the back for the record.

"It's no time to be reflecting on a milestone. We're in the middle of a season here and there are a lot of games to play," he said.

The middle of a season? Yes. But most likely heading toward the twilight of a career. Iwase knows he is losing some of his stuff, and flamethrowing set-up man Takuya Asao, the closer in waiting, had finished up in four save situations before the All-Star break.

Iwase's own personal scouting report isn't all that positive.

"When I was young, I just went with the slider and the fastball to get guys out, but I've added pitches like a shootball," he said. "Now, with my fastball gradually losing movement, I've learned to work both sides of the plate better."

Yes, working the corners helps, but he hasn't been as dominant this season (26 hits allowed in 19-1/3 innings) as in years past. Still, Iwase said his immediate goal is to reach 300 saves, a figure he would have already surpassed had he been handed the role earlier in his career.

"I always had the confidence I could be a closer," said Iwase, who won 10 games out of the bullpen in each of his first two seasons. "But I just tried to do the job that was asked of me."

Asked if he enjoyed his job, Iwase was at a loss for words, as if the thought has not once crossed his mind in nearly 300 saves. Closing games is serious work.

So is physical self-preservation.

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