VERO BEACH, Fla. (AP) -Takashi Saito had one, simple goal after signing a minor league contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers two years ago.
``My only hope was to get on the major league mound once,'' he said Sunday through a translator.
Mission accomplished, and a whole lot more. He's established himself as one of baseball's best closers.
Saito was a week shy of his 36th birthday when he agreed to terms with the Dodgers on Feb. 7, 2006, after an up-and-down 14-year career with the Yokohama Baystars of Japan's Central League.
He began his first season in the Los Angeles organization at Triple-A Las Vegas, but the Dodgers called him up in the first week to replace injured closer Eric Gagne on the roster.
Saito took over the closer's role May 15, after Yhency Brazoban was injured. He's been entrenched, and terrific, ever since.
``I didn't expect any of this at all,'' he admitted. ``At that point, there hadn't been any Japanese players who were successful after signing a minor league contract.''
Saito appeared in a career-high 72 games as a 36-year-old rookie and was 6-2 with a 2.07 ERA and 24 saves in 26 chances. He was even better last season, appearing in 63 games and going 2-1 with a 1.40 ERA and 39 saves in 43 chances.
He was rewarded with a berth on the NL All-Star team.
``His stuff is really, really good,'' Dodgers catcher Russell Martin said. ``He very rarely makes mistakes. When it does happen, he gets away with it.
``He's a high-energy guy. He feeds off the crowd. It looks like he loves being in that situation.''
The Saito smile seems ever-present except when he's pitching. But after a successful outing, he makes no attempt to hide his unmitigated joy.
New Dodgers skipper Joe Torre worked with one of baseball's best closers during his 12 seasons managing the Yankees, Mariano Rivera.
Torre said he doesn't know much about Saito yet, but added: ``He seems to be very comfortable with who he is. Closers are unique people - they have to forget about yesterday. The couple years he's had here, his confidence level seems impressive.''
Saito appeared in 339 games, 178 of them starts, during his career with Yokohama and had an 87-80 record with a 3.81 ERA. He was exceptional as a closer in 2001-02, but mostly a starter after that until joining the Dodgers.
He said he became eligible for free agency in 2001 and thought about coming to America, but received a much better offer from Yokohama than any big league team.
``My interest level in both sides was about the same,'' he recalled.
In his final three years in Japan, Saito went 6-7 with a 4.18 ERA, 2-5 with a 7.71 ERA, and 3-4 with a 3.82 ERA.
Not so good.
``The last three years of my career in Japan, I wasn't healthy at all,'' he said. ``That's the main reason the Dodgers signed me to a minor league contract. The last three months, I was feeling good about myself.''
The Dodgers took notice.
``We had scouts who watched him,'' general manager Ned Colletti said. ``While his last few years in Japan were unremarkable, we were intrigued by his makeup and his delivery.''
Colletti recalled veteran catcher Pat Borders telling him shortly after Saito's arrival at his first spring training how impressed he was with the Japanese right-hander.
``It's one of the best stories in baseball,'' Colletti said. ``He's got a true warrior mentality. He helped us sign (Hiroki) Kuroda, too.''
Kuroda, a 33-year-old right-hander ticketed for the Dodgers' rotation, signed a three-year, $35.3 million contract during the offseason.
``He's helped me out a lot,'' Kuroda said through a translator. ``I have the greatest respect for Takashi. He was always a good pitcher in Japan. I think he's better suited for the majors. I don't think anybody can put a finger on why.''
Saito signed a one-year, $2 million contract on Feb. 13 - the day before his 38th birthday.
``Happy birthday to me,'' he said in English with a wide grin when a reporter brought that up.
``He's got a good sense of humor,'' said teammate Joe Beimel, a fellow reliever. ``I've been out to dinner with him a couple times - once with a translator, once without. He took me to a place where they served cow tongue, cow stomach, stuff like that. I didn't eat any of that. No chance.''
But he does remember enjoying a few laughs, making for a good time.
Saito laughed when asked about that night.
``I had a blast,'' he said. ``He's one of my bullpen mates who always makes an effort to communicate with me. He speaks to me in English very slowly. He tried a few new things, but he told me he wasn't going to eat when he didn't want to eat. And he didn't.''
Saito won't pitch for at least a couple days because of a sore right calf, but Torre said he's not concerned.
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