Baseball in Japan: Arms at rest Print
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Friday, 18 May 2007 12:59
MLB Headline News

 C.J. Nitkowski pitched for several major league teams from 1995-05. He's playing in Japan this year and will file periodic updates for The Associated Press on his experience. His stories will be archived on his Web site,
For The Associated Press
FUKUOKA, Japan (AP) -Now that the Yankees have signed Roger Clemens, much is being made about the concessions the Bronx Bombers gave the Rocket to pitch in pinstripes again.
Inside baseball, it's called ``The Clemens Program.'' The flexible schedule allows Roger to lessen the brutal travel demands in order to have more family time, something he has certainly earned.
On this side of the world, there isn't a starting pitching in Japan who doesn't enjoy almost the same luxuries that ``The Clemens Program'' offers.
If I could do it all over again, I'd come to Japan as a starting pitcher - even with those 150-pitch outings that everyone hears about. The ``easy life'' doesn't even begin to describe what these guys enjoy.
What is most notable is the time off between starts. The SoftBank Hawks, like most teams in Japan, use a six-man starting rotation. When you factor in that we have almost every Monday off during the season, our starting pitchers end up pitching once every seven days.
It is reminiscent of a college pitching rotation. As a starter at St. John's, I pitched a conference game every Saturday. After pitching in the States professionally for 13 seasons, you realize how nice six days off between games can really be for your arm.
As if the time off in between starts wasn't enough, the Hawks implement the second-day rule. The second day after he pitches, our starter is given the day completely off. He does not come to the ballpark, regardless of where we are. It is a day of rest and recovery.
Can you imagine being on a three-day road trip to San Diego and on one of the three days, while your team is playing the Padres, you get the day off? Beach? Sleeping? Maybe a day trip home? No problem, enjoy your day away from your team and be ready to take the mound again in five days.
I often thought that if I were a starter I couldn't take full advantage of the second-day rule, it just wouldn't feel right. The pitchers here seem to have no problem with it.
The season schedule in Japan is usually a week at home followed by a week on the road. On the rare occasion that we do have a short road trip, say three days to Osaka to play the Buffaloes, the only starters that travel with us are the three that are scheduled to pitch.
That means that the other three stay at home and work out at our minor league complex located just 25 minutes from our home field. Their day ends early and they are usually home by noon. The rest of the team is in Osaka preparing for our night game.
When the starters are actually with the team, which doesn't seem to be that often, you still rarely see them. The only time a starting pitcher is in uniform and in the dugout is on the day he is pitching. If he is not pitching, he is inside the clubhouse lounging, working out, getting a massage or watching the game on TV. I once saw one of our top starting pitchers get a nearly two-hour massage that lasted from the beginning of the game through the sixth inning.
I have heard of other teams in Japan that allow their non-game starters to go home before the game starts once they have completed their work for the day. We don't do that in Fukuoka, but we come pretty close.
Of course, all this time away from the team opens the starters up to some ribbing. When I haven't seen one of my teammates for what seems like weeks, I'll often say ``He-sashi-bure'' which means ``nice to see you'' but is only used when long periods of time have passed since you've last seen someone.
``Anata wa dare deska?'' works well also - ``Who are you?'' Follow that with a formal introduction in Japanese and you'll usually get a laugh.
The Far East version of ``The Clemens Program'' does come at a price.
Demands are heavy on the starting pitchers here. Not a pitcher's meeting goes by that our pitching coach does not ask the day's starter, in front of the entire staff, to ``please complete'' your game today.
The first time I heard that I thought he was just kidding. Then I realized he didn't smile and that he was serious.
With all the rest, pitch counts soar in Japan. Toshiya Sugiuchi, a left-handed starter with the Hawks, recently finished off a complete-game shutout, his second of the young season, with 151 pitches.
For a first-place team that has already lost two starting pitchers to injuries, that is quite a risk. But like so many of my ``why'' questions in Japan, the answer is always the same: ``That is the just Japanese way.''

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