By ED M. ODEVEN
(The Rafu Shimpo, Published in March 2000)
After an injury-plagued 1998 season, Hideo Nomo re-emerged as one of baseball’s better power pitchers last season. But it wasn’t an easy ride.
In less than two months, Nomo was released by the New York Mets and then made three appearances with the Chicago Cubs’ Triple-A Iowa affiliate before joining the Milwaukee Brewers organization last May. And he had one tune-up start in Double-A Huntsville before joining the Brewers’ starting rotation.
In Milwaukee, Nomo led the Brewers with 12 wins and 161 strikeouts. He also proved he still has the stamina to be a durable hurler, working into the seventh inning in 18 of 28 starts.
Now, new Detroit Tigers manager Phil Garner, Nomo’s skipper with the Brewers last season, expects Nomo to spearhead a youthful, perhaps unproven Tigers pitching staff.
*The last Tigers pitcher to strike out 200 batters in a season was All-Star Jack Morris, who accomplished the feat in 1986 and 1987.
*The last Tigers pitching staff to have a sub-4.00 ERA was in 1988 (3.71) when they went 88-74.
For a little perspective, Nomo has a 3.82 ERA in 151 major league appearances. Nomo has been named Detroit’s No. 1 starter, and he will be the team’s Opening Day starter on April 3 against the host Oakland Athletics.
“I’ve been impressed with Nomo,” Garner said after a recent game at Joker Marchant Stadium. “He’s disciplined, he knows exactly what he’s doing and he’s really organized. He’s as competitive as they get. I really like him.”
Nomo’s off to a impressive start this spring, too. In three starts, Nomo over 12 innings, Nomo has held the opposition to a dismal .222 batting average. He has posted a 2.25 ERA, while walking seven and striking out eight.
“He pitched great for me last year,” Garner said. “He’s been a good pitcher his whole career, and with the exception of one year, he’s been above .500. And that’s hard to find. I expect him to do the same for us (this season).”
Dan Warthen, the Tigers pitching coach, agrees.
“He brings leadership to this baseball club. He brings a lot of winning and he brings a work ethic that these guys do respect,” Warthen said.
Warthen also feels Nomo has regained the arm strength that made him such an intimidating presence in the past. “I’ve seen better stuff from him this year than I did last year or the year before,” Warthen said. “I think his arm’s stronger. The velocity is up and when his velocity is up, his best pitch — the split-fingered fastball — all is in order.”
This will not be Nomo’s first career Opening Day start. During his highly successful five-year stint with the Kintetsu Buffaloes, he pitched on Opening Day four times.
Despite his impressive showing so far in Grapefruit League action, Nomo said he was surprised Garner made this decision.
“First of all, I have no experience with the Tigers,” Nomo said through an interpreter. “And second of all, I’ve only thrown three games with the Tigers in spring training. I didn’t expect the anouncement this early.”
When asked by a reporter if this could be his best season yet, Nomo simply replied, “I have no idea.”
However, he said he welcomes the challenge of being Detroit’s ace. “I have more chances to pitch more games during the season,” he said. “So I hope to have good results.”
Nomo said he feels the elements are in place to have a successful season, especially the clubhouse atmosphere.
“The teammates, coaches, manager…everybody with the Tigers is very relaxed. I can concentrate better this spring,” he said.
According to Tigers hitting coach Bill Madlock, Nomo will be beneficial to the ballclub in more ways than one.
“I think he can make (reliever Masao) Kida more comfortable, and that’s one of the key things right there,” said Madlock, a four-time National League batting champion who played for the Lotte Orions in 1988. “When I was in Japan I was the only American on the team. It was absolutely tough, almost impossible to relax and be comfortable with the situation.”
DID YOU KNOW?
*Nomo became the fastest pitcher in major league history to reach 500 career strikeouts (444.2 innings) in 1997.
*Nomo and Dwight Gooden are the only pitchers to fan at least 200 batters in their first three big league seasons.
THE LAST WORD
“Nomo will give you a solid start every time out. He’s the kind of guy you want out there in big games. He gets out of jams. He’s good for young pitchers. He’ll do nothing but have benefits for this club.” –Tigers bench coach Bob Melvin.