Headline: A Real Zero
White Sox reliever Shingo Takatsu arrives with one particularly impressive number
By Ed M. Odeven
Which is, of course, how he earned the adoration of Japanese fans and the whimsical nickname “Mr. Zero” while helping the Yakult Swallows win league titles in 1993, ’95, ’97 and 2001. In short, Takatsu has been a clutch pitcher for his entire professional career while establishing himself as one of Japan’s all-time greats — he has 260 career saves, surpassing Kazuhiro Sasaki’s former record of 229.
Looking to solidify their bullpen, the White Sox signed the 35-year-old ex-Swallows star to a one-year deal — with a club option for 2005 — on Jan. 22. The submarine-style right-hander is slated to be a setup man for hard-throwing closer Billy Koch.
So far this spring, Takatsu has not overwhelmed opposing hitters. (Through Thursday, he had an 0-1 record with an 8.53 ERA in seven appearances, allowing 13 hits in 6 1/3 innings while walking three and striking out seven.) At times, he has appeared over-cautious and lacking confidence on the hill.
“This is all a dress rehearsal for Chicago,” White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper said, repeating the sentiment that many longtime ballplayers and coaches have always said is the role of spring training. “I mean, none of this counts. If counts when we go to Chicago. We have to get everything prepared for there.”
Therefore, now’s not the time for Takatsu to be too concerned about his performance, according to White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen.
“He’s only pitched in five games,” Guillen said before Monday’s game against the Milwaukee Brewers at Maryvale Baseball Park. “We want him to be (more relaxed).”
Easier said than done? The Japanese press chronicles Takatsu’s every move on the diamond — from pitching in games, to stretching, to running wind sprints, to warming up in the bullpen.
Or as Guillen put it: “He’s got a lot of pressure to come here and pitch in this country. Already, coming over here is pressure for everybody. No, I don’t have any worries about him. I think he can do the job.”
Summing up his thoughts on getting the chance to pitch for the White Sox, Takatsu, speaking through interpreter Hiroshi Abei, “I know I have an opportunity to challenge in this league, and I am lucky to have the opportunity.”
As spring training winds down and the White Sox get ready for their season-opening game on April 5 at Kansas City, Takatsu is making a series of little adjustments, such as getting acclimated to the major-league strike zone, to help him prepare for the regular season.
Cooper has kept a close eye on Takatsu and urged him to pitch inside to lefties, something he wasn’t doing on a regular basis earlier in training camp.
Last week, for instance, Takatsu pitched two innings in a minor league game against only lefties. This outing was intended to drive home the point that the White Sox do not want him to feel comfortable only facing righties, that they do plan to use him against lefties.
Cooper has been pleased with the results.
“I came away from the minor-league game the other day with a better feel for where we’re going with the left-handed hitters,” the coach said.
“I have a video tape of him pitching in Japan and a lot of his pitchers were inside to lefties. And his out-pitch seems to be the change-up. But if you don’t pitch inside and throw a lot of change-ups, it gets seen a lot more and doesn’t have the same effect. He’s got to try to get ahead in the count without showcasing his out-pitch that much.”
White Sox catcher Sandy Alomar Jr. offered this assessment:
“He’s not going to probably blow people away [with his fastball, which tops out at around 88-89 mph] but his change-up is so good that if you try to stay back on the change-up, the batter’s in trouble. … He can jam people. … You’ve got to throw strikes and attack people. That’s the bottom line.”
Yes, a focal point of Takatsu’s training camp has been getting over the mental obstacles. Cooper said Takatsu has mentioned that ballplayers in the U.S. are bigger and stronger than those in Japan.
Which, naturally, is a normal concern for pitchers making the transition from The Land of the Rising Sun to America. But it can’t be the only thought. Why? “I think he’s worried about giving up the long ball,” Cooper said. “You can’t, as a pitcher, worry about giving up this, that or the other thing. You’ve just got to think positive and think about what you have to do rather than the result.”
As Takatsu settles into a regular routine, gets to know his teammates better and feels more at home in Chi-town, White Sox coaches say his mental focus will improve, too.
“As long as he gets his confidence back and believes in himself, I think everything will be already,” Guillen said.
Takatsu isn’t ready to push the panic button yet, either.
“I basically have not changed anything in terms of my pitching style,” said Takatsu, who has 20 or more saves in eight seasons, including three straight with 30-plus saves. “I am going to keep my own style.”
And isn’t that the key for Takatsu this season?
“This is pitching at the highest level in the world,” Cooper concluded. “The best players in the world are here. You don’t need to put unnecessary pressure on yourself.
“What you’ve done your whole career is enough. You don’t need to do more.”
Indeed, what Takatsu has done has always been good enough. Will that trademark continue in the major leagues? Stay tuned.