The Late Show (cont.)
Posted: Monday February 26, 2007 1:51PM; Updated: Monday February 26, 2007 2:43PM
The 37-year-old Saito is no kid. In fact, he was the oldest rookie closer in team history at 36 last season and he did so well that they brought him back for a contract worth a possible $1.3 million in 2007.
Saito's long career in Japan, where he bounced between being a starter and a reliever, no doubt helped make his first year in America a little less difficult. That first step, though -- actually getting here -- was not easy. He initially considered coming over three years ago, but a nice-sized contract from the Yokohama Baystars convinced him to stay. Injuries limited him to 44 1/3 innings of work in 2004, and his numbers in his last couple of years in Japan were not impressive, dampening the interest among major-league teams.
The Dodgers -- who almost landed Saito before he re-signed with the Baystars -- remained keen on him, even though few other American teams did. (The Reds reportedly were one.) L.A. scout Kojima Keiichi, director of Asian operations Acey Kohrogi and assistant general manager Logan White suggested the Dodgers take a look, so Saito got an invitation to spring camp. Little watched him on a side field in Vero Beach on one of the first days in Dodgertown and instantly knew what he had.
"You could tell from the start he was experienced. You could see his knowledge of pitching," the manager said. "He wasn't going out there and trying to impress us. And his stuff was good."
Catcher Russell Martin remembers Dodgers hitters, early last spring, walking away from at-bats against Saito raving about his stuff. But it wasn't until after Gagne was finally declared a non-factor and Saito made his way back from a two-week stay at Class AAA Las Vegas that the right-handed Saito got his first chance to show that he could get the job done when it counted.
"After a game or two, there was no doubt," Little said. "He's got this ability, like a lot of great pitchers, to place a baseball in a little, bitty circle."
As much as the Dodgers thought of him, though, as good as Saito was in spring and in his first few weeks of real games, nobody could have predicted just how effective he would be in his initial season in the National League. He allowed fewer baserunners per inning last year, and had a lower ERA, than he ever had in Japan. Right-handers hit just .129 against him. His ability to strike out hitters was almost completely unexpected.
Saito is not a hard thrower. His fastball rarely cracks 90 mph. But he confounded hitters with his shuto, a kind of dipping two-seam fastball, a deadly accurate slider and a very effective curveball. He has a deceptive pitching motion, too, and his fist-pumping, scream-letting aggressiveness seems the complete opposite of the friendly side that his teammates see off the field. "I just like his demeanor when he's out there on the mound," said new Dodgers outfielder Luis Gonzalez, 0-for-2 against Saito last year when Gonzo was with the Diamondbacks. "He's got a lot of confidence."
Saito knows, more than anyone, that Season Two in America probably won't go nearly as smoothly. Already, he's nursing a sore right calf muscle, though he says it's minor. And if American baseball fans aren't fully aware of how good he is, the National League West certainly is.
"It's a lot different than last year. People know about me, so it will be more difficult to take people by surprise. Certainly, this should be a more difficult season than last year," Saito said. "But, just like last season, I just want to worry about only what I can control. If there's anything different than last year, I want to be even more aggressive."
That may not be the only change we see in Saito in '07. Like many Japanese pitchers, Saito throws at least five different pitches and, for the most part, he's thrown only three of them in America: the shuto fastball, the curve and the slider. (Martin says he's seen Saito mess around with a split-fingered fastball, too.) With hitters more aware of him and what he throws, Saito may be forced to open his bag of pitches.
Saito, with a coy smile and a chuckle, is mum on the subject. "If I feel, during the spring training games, that it's going to be necessary for me to use one of my other pitches that I don't normally feature, then I will work on those during spring training," he said.
Saito's also taking suggestions for a song to be played in Dodger Stadium when he's called into a game. (One suggestion has been the embarrassing karaoke version of Hey Jude that Saito was tricked into belting out last season as a rookie.) And his English -- at least the way ballplayers teach it -- is improving every day. ("My bad," he told a teammate recently.)
Whether all those changes will result in another dominant year may be the biggest unanswerable question of all with Saito. We'll all simply have to wait to see this mystery that is Saito ... if those of us on the East coast can stay up that late.