The Late Show
Dodgers closer remains one of game's hidden gems
Posted: Monday February 26, 2007 1:51PM; Updated: Monday February 26, 2007 2:43PM
VERO BEACH, Fla. -- The mysteries surrounding Takashi Saito, the Dodgers' deliciously intriguing Japanese closer, pile up like so many strikeouts on the back of his baseball card.
How, for example, has he managed to resurrect a nearly comatose career, becoming a better pitcher here than he ever was in Japan? What is he really throwing and why can't anybody hit him? Is he the friendly, unassuming quiet type, as he displays in the Dodgers' clubhouse, or that screaming wild man we sometimes witness on the mound? Can he possibly be as good in his second year in America as he was in his wondrous, under-the-radar rookie year?
If there's one easy question to answer about Saito and his remarkable career rebirth, it's why he remains unknown to a good chunk of American baseball fans. After all, when the man begins most of his workdays as the rest of the nation is calling it a night, it's not easy to squeeze onto the evening highlight shows and into the sporting consciousness.
Saito, looking tan and fit sitting at a table in the Dodgers' spring training clubhouse recently, is fine with his relative anonymity on this side of the Pacific. He's a humble sort anyway, content to be living his dream of playing in the American big leagues and happy that the Dodgers, at least, knew a little something about him. He wants nothing more than to pitch well for the Dodgers again this year and, if things work out, maybe some years after that.
A little recognition from Joe Fan for his work well done? His face on the cover of Sports Illustrated? A theme song that blares when he walks in from the bullpen? "Game Over" signs all over the stadium? A place along Matsuzaka, Matsui and Ichiro in the pantheon of great Japanese players to succeed in America? None of it particularly fits Saito, who is embarrassed enough that his spot in the Dodgertown clubhouse has been moved from among the mass of bodies just trying to make it onto the roster to a cushy end locker across the room, the true sign of a made man in baseball.
"Last year, in spring training, when my locker was down there," Saito said through Dodgers executive and interpreter Scott Akasaki, "it was a situation where the Dodgers were giving me a chance to play. And, because they gave me a chance, I want to, as a Dodger, do the best I can for this team. I really don't think about popularity."
Still, what Saito did last season, while much of America slept, practically screams for acknowledgment. In his first major-league season, after 14 years of ups and downs in Japan, Saito forged the most dominating rookie season by a closer ever.
Many on the East Coast last season were busy lionizing another rookie closer, Boston's Jonathan Papelbon. But Saito did everything for the Dodgers that Papelbon did for the Red Sox and, in some ways, did it more convincingly. Saito didn't have as many saves as Papelbon (35 to 24), and his ERA wasn't quite as low (0.92 to 2.07). But Saito threw more innings (78 1/3 to 68 1/3), struck out more batters (107-75), struck out more per nine innings (12.3 to 9.9) and served up the same number of home runs (three apiece) despite the 10 more innings pitched. And he did it for a playoff team.
General manager Ned Colletti readily admits that Saito, maybe more than any other player on the team, saved the Dodgers in 2006. The team was counting on Eric Gagne to close, but when he decided on season-ending surgery early in April, the Dodgers were forced to scramble. The team's first move was to look to Danys Baez. Saito was plucked out of a brief stay in the minors to fill out the bullpen and serve in a setup role.
By May, Saito had become the closer. By the end of July, the Dodgers had traded Baez for a third baseman (Wilson Betemit).
"Toward the end of the season, Saito went in and told [manager] Grady [Little], 'I'll pitch every day, if you need me to.'" Colletti said. "This kid filled some pretty big shoes, and he did it without a whole lot of fanfare."
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