Posted: Thursday January 4, 2007 1:45PM; Updated: Thursday January 4, 2007 1:45PM
After a reasonably successful career for the Hanshin Tigers, Kei Igawa will wear a different set of pinstripes this season.
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Kei Igawa's baseball career has not been an unfettered ascent. In 2001, at the maddeningly precocious age of 20, the Japanese southpaw joined the starting rotation of the Hanshin Tigers. He went 9-13 for the last-place club, but finished with a 2.67 ERA -- second in the Central League.
The next season his stats improved to 14-9 and 2.49, and he won his first of three strikeout titles. In '03 the Tigers snagged the Central League pennant and Igawa -- 20-5 record with a league-leading 2.80 ERA -- was named both MVP and winner of the Sawamura, the Nippon equivalent of the Cy Young Award.
After that, his career graph shows a series of downward jags. Though Igawa led the league in strikeouts (228) in '04, his victories dropped to 14 while his ERA ballooned to 3.73. In '05, his whiff total fell even farther (145) and his ERA rose to 3.86, fifth among Tigers starters.
"I keep my own rhythm," Igawa says. "Which sometimes backfires." When his signature change-up stopped changing, he lost that rhythm altogether and was exiled to the minors. Happily, he regained it last spring, finishing the '06 campaign with a 14-9 mark, a 2.97 ERA and 194 Ks.
Last fall Igawa asked Hanshin to auction his negotiating rights to the highest-bidding major league team through the posting system. In December, the New York Yankees won the rights -- bidding more than $26 million -- and signed Igawa to a five-year $20 million contract. Igawa looks to fit at the back end of a rotation that includes Chien-ming Wang, Mike Mussina and Andy Pettitte.
We caught up with him recently at the St. Regis Hotel in Manhattan, where he had come to take his team physical.
SI: Hideki Matsui is nicknamed Godzilla. What's your favorite Japanese film monster? Igawa: I have none.
SI: Not even Mothra or Rodan? Igawa: I never watch horror films.
SI: The Boston Red Sox made a Mechagodzilla-sized splash this offseason by bidding more than $51 million for the rights to Japanese ace Daisuke Matsuzaka and signing him to a $52 million, six-year contract. Did the hard-line shenanigans of his agent, Scott Boras, hurt Matsuzaka's image in Japan? Igawa: I have no idea. Please ask Daisuke directly.
SI: How have you fared in head-to-head competition against Matsuzaka? Igawa: We pitched against each other during the Inter-League season last year. I don't remember the details, but we both did our job as the starters.
SI: Are you guys friends? Igawa: Since we pitched in different leagues, I've never talked to him at length. But we'll both have the opportunity from now on.