Samurai Ace Sugano Aims To Make Up For Absence Of Otani

Samurai ace Sugano aims to make up for absence of OtaniYomiuri Giants ace Tomoyuki Sugano was composed as he spoke about the moment he heard two-way star Shohei Otani of the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters would not be able to pitch in the upcoming World Baseball Classic.
“I understand how eager he was to play [in the WBC],” Sugano said after Day 1 of training camp with the national team, nicknamed Samurai Japan.

“He probably feels far more disappointed than anyone. I am not sure I will be able to replace [the production of a player like] Otani, but I am going to do what I can to make up for his absence.”

Sugano and Otani were supposed to be the two main starters for Samurai Japan. Pitching coach Hiroshi Gondo calls them both “exceptional.” However, with Otani out of the picture, the expectations on Sugano have been ratcheted up.

Those around Sugano, though, do not get the sense he is under pressure — he can be an imposing figure.

Even though he is making his WBC debut, Sugano is fully aware he is the ace of the pitching staff. He went to Hawaii late last year to train for more than a month, and worked harder than in normal years to get himself ready.

Those who know him well were surprised when they took one look at his face once he returned from Hawaii. “He is already switched to ‘on mode,’” said one insider.

One person close to him said it was the first time the fifth-year professional appeared to be unapproachable prior to training camp.

People around Sugano use the word “imaginative” to describe one of his main attributes.

“Sugano would visualize every pitch he threw in [game-like] detail during bullpen sessions. In addition to his outstanding potential, he had a healthy imagination,” one of his former coaches recalled.

The right-hander makes use of this ability to recognize his weaknesses, but also has a knack for understanding such aspects as game situations and reading what his opponents are thinking.

One of Sugano’s aims this season was to work to master a changeup. The reason for that is the official balls used in WBC tend to be slippery, and he wanted to come up with an alternative vertical breaking pitch as a substitute for his forkball.

At a Jan. 28 voluntary training session, Sugano threw 39 pitches, including offspeed pitches, in the bullpen.

“I’m throwing it the way I want,” he said with a sense of satisfaction.

Sugano seems to have adjusted well to the WBC ball. During a visit to a shrine before spring camps opened, Sugano wrote the kanji character that means “top” on an ema votive wooden tablet he offered at the shrine, saying: “I am ready [for the WBC]. I will do what I am supposed to do.”

The 27-year-old should be able to use his vivid imagination to picture a clear path to the top of the world.

Tsutsugo emulates idol Ichiro

Another player expected to fill a big role at the WBC is Yoshitomo Tsutsugo of the Yokohama DeNA BayStars, who performed superbly in two particular offensive categories last season, winning the home run crown with 44 homers and leading the Central League with 110 RBIs.

He always puts priority on finding ways to help his team win. He can hit according to game situations. He is certainly qualified enough to be the big bopper for the Samurai Japan during the WBC.

Manager Hiroki Kokubo highly values the 25-year-old left-handed hitter, saying, “Tsutsugo’s biggest asset is his ability to hit the ball strongly to the left side — it’s world class.”

He also has the advantage of skills that can be effective even with the Japanese team’s limited statistical analysis on opposing WBC players and lack of experience competing against players in the tournament.

Tsutsugo has been trying to improve his ability to hit to the opposite field since the 2011 offseason. He was criticized for having a late swing, and suffered through a stretch during which his results were less than desirable.

He finally seems to be approaching an ideal batting style. He hit 12 opposite-field homers last season, a sharp rise from none in 2015.

His improvement stems from earnest study. During the 2015 postseason, he voluntarily went to play in the winter league in the Dominican Republic. He made adjustments to his hitting form, only slightly raising his right leg so he could handle pitches with late movement.

The first WBC was held in 2006, when he was a junior high school student. He was honing his baseball skills every day in a temporary structure on his family’s property. Watching excellent performances of star players such as Ichiro Suzuki (now with the Miami Marlins) on TV in a classroom, he dreamed of being like them.

Now it is Tsutsugo on whom children nationwide have placed expectations of a strong batting performance.

“I want my performance to be an inspiration and give fans dreams.”

He is determined to bring everything he has to the field.