Kuwata's sushi-ball has the raw material
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Mark Avery, Associated Press
Pitcher Masumi Kuwata gets high fives from teammates in the dugout after leaving in the seventh inning against the Angels Sunday in Anaheim, Calif.
ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Maybe Masumi Kuwata should call it the sushi-ball.
Like the seaweed that wraps the traditional Japanese dish, the pitch rolls unpredictably and not very attractively as it approaches home plate.
Like the varieties of raw fish and rice inside, no one can guess what is coming.
And, yes, it can take some time to prepare.
Post-Gazette photo illustration
Game: Pirates (LHP Paul Maholm 3-10, 5.01) vs. Florida Marlins (RHP Dontrelle Willis 7-6, 4.90), 7:05 p.m., Dolphin Stadium.
TV, radio: FSN Pittsburgh, WPGB-FM (104.7).
Key matchup: Freddy Sanchez is 9 for 13 with a double off Willis, who had this start pushed back two days because of soreness in his left arm.
Of note: The Marlins are floating below.500 at 36-40 after dropping two of three to the Minnesota Twins, but where might they be if their hitters did not lead Major League Baseball with 635 strikeouts?
"Sushi-ball?" asked Kenji Takamiya, one of the dozen Japanese journalists following Kuwata. "It's OK. Maybe good. But he already came up with a name for it that he told us about in spring training."
What was that?
That would be Japanese for rainbow, as in rainbow curve.
Whatever it is called, the pitch in question, the one Kuwata throws at a tantalizingly slow 66-68 mph, has been the buzz of an otherwise moribund road trip so far for the Pirates. And that is mostly because it is as difficult to describe as it is to hit.
"I think it's a curveball," left fielder Jason Bay said.
"Looks like a changeup to me," first baseman Adam LaRoche said.
Even Heberto Andrade, the team's bullpen catcher who sees more of it than anyone, does not have a definitive answer.
"I know it moves a lot," he said.
And the man himself?
"Maybe it's a slider," Kuwata said, grinning. "No, really, it's just a curveball. I use many pitches, and that is the one that goes the slowest."
How, then, to explain the way it dives into the dirt, as if to corkscrew a subway tunnel? Or how it can have a similar corkscrew effect on the batter?
"Maybe it's the deception," Kuwata said. "Maybe they can't see it."
More likely, observers say, the batter simply cannot adjust.
When Kuwata was in the early -- and brilliant -- stages of his 21-year career with the Yomiuri Giants in Japan, he was a flamethrower, routinely achieving 95-96 mph. He developed a versatile arsenal, as most pitchers there do, but the heat was the thing.
"I used to throw very hard, you know?" Kuwata said. "But I have had too many things happen to me, too many surgeries here and here and here ..."
He pointed to his elbow, shoulder and each of his ankles.
"Now, of course, I do not throw so hard."
His fastball seldom clocks above 86 mph, the speed of many pitchers' sliders. But, when blended with his curveball, slider, changeup and ... sushi-ball, the velocity becomes relative.
"When you're out there facing the usual pitchers throwing 90-92 mph all night, it's a huge change when someone like that comes out," shortstop Jack Wilson said.
"It's a big difference between 68 and 86," Bay said. "And you can see that with the swings and misses he gets that guys aren't ready for it."
Ask Ichiro Suzuki about that.
The Seattle Mariners' star might be the sport's most accomplished contact hitter, and he was made to look foolish in his lone at-bat against Kuwata last Thursday. The four pitches in the sequence were a fastball outside, a changeup for a called strike, a slider in on the fists for a swing and miss, and Suzuki's awkward, one-handed hack at a 70-mph pitch low and well off the plate.
Yes, that pitch.
Ryan Doumit was behind the plate, and he had to wait as long as Suzuki for it to arrive.
"I think what makes it so effective is that it's so slow," Doumit said. "It's like when you face Roy Oswalt, and he throws 98 on one pitch, then 62 on the curve ... that makes it tough on the hitter."
The Japanese media asked Suzuki his reaction to the pitch.
"I surrender," he answered with a smile.
The guile and mystery aside, the key to Kuwata's remarkable early success with the Pirates -- four scoreless outings in five appearances, including all three on this trip -- has been impeccable control.
In his debut June 10 at Yankee Stadium, he walked two and gave up a home run to Alex Rodriguez. But he also confessed afterward to being "really nervous."
So, take a look, instead, at his numbers in the five appearances that have followed:
He has retired 16 of the 20 batters he has faced in 5 2/3 innings, the only two hits dribblers through the infield.
INDIANAPOLIS (43-33) lost at Toledo, 9-1. RHP Bryan Bullington (9-4, 3.43), pitching for the first time since a sore shoulder shut him down June 10, allowed six runs and four hits in 2 1/3 innings. He struck out one, walked four and threw 35 of 63 pitches for strikes. RHP Jesse Chavez (3.60) pitched 2 2/3 scoreless innings of relief. SS Brian Bixler (.297) went 1 for 3.
ALTOONA (36-37) lost at Reading, 4-3. LHP Josh Shortslef (2-7, 4.13) allowed four runs in seven innings. RF Adam Boeve (.302) hit his 11th and 12th home runs and went 2 for 4. 3B Neil Walker (.310) went 0 for 3 with a walk and a steal. CF Andrew McCutchen (.226) went 1 for 4 with an RBI.
LYNCHBURG (32-40) lost to Myrtle Beach, 15-6. RHP Todd Redmond (5-5, 4.54) allowed seven runs in five-plus innings. DH Brad Corley (.256) hit his fifth and sixth home runs and went 2 for 3 with a walk and four RBIs. RF Jamie Romak (.262) went 2 for 3 with two walks.
HICKORY (29-43) lost at Kannapolis, 2-1. RHP Henry Cabrera (3-4, 5.27) allowed two runs in four innings.
STATE COLLEGE (2-5) lost at Batavia, 6-2. RHP Moises Robles (0-2, 4.50) allowed five runs, four earned, in four-plus innings. SS Smelin Perez (.368) went 2 for 3 with a double, a walk and an RBI.
BRADENTON (3-3) lost to the Twins, 12-3. RHP Rafael Dellossantos (0-1, 4.50) allowed four runs, three earned, in three innings. LF Ciro Rosero (.167) hit his first home run, a three-run shot, in his only at-bat.
He has thrown 52 of 81 pitches for strikes, or 64 percent.
He has struck out six and walked two, one of those intentionally.
In all nine of his professional appearances, including the one at Yankee Stadium and three with Class AAA Indianapolis, he has thrown 110 of 151 pitches for strikes, or 73 percent.
"It's about the strikes," manager Jim Tracy said. "He has the know-how, the ability to get hitters out. And we've seen that he has a lot of different ways to do it. But the biggest thing is that he puts the ball over the plate when he wants to. And yes, there are times when he puts the ball off the plate on purpose, just because it's part of his plan to get the batter out."
That level of command is surprising in light of Kuwata having made only two mound appearances since missing two months to a severely sprained right ankle from spring training. Even during rehabilitation, he did not face live batters.
But it is not surprising when considering Japan's umpires are known to have narrower strike zones than here.
"I'm not surprised," Kuwata said. "I have come back from many other injuries."
It surely is surprising that he has struck out so many. His last quality season in Japan came in 2002, when he went 12-6 with a 2.22 ERA. In the four years that followed, he missed more time than he played because of injury, he had a combined record of 9-16 and a 6.51 ERA, and he averaged only a strikeout every two innings.
"Yes, that is surprising," Kuwata agreed. "I am trying to get ground balls."
The one element to Kuwata, on and off the field, that could surprise no one is his poise.
When on the mound, he seems to have a controlled spirit -- his energy in pursuing ground balls built on a history of nine Gold Gloves in Japan, his repeated nods to his defense a testament to the seven team championships he won in 1987-2002.
"I love to see some of what he brings to this team," LaRoche said. "You can tell he's a winner."
Off the mound ... well, that is something with which none of the other Pirates can identify.
Kuwata has lived in a media bubble since he was 15 years old and led his high school to Japan's national championship. He was the star of his day, beginning with being named the Central League's top pitcher in 1987 and culminating with an MVP award in 1994. As a result, everywhere he went, a nation that has dozens of sports-only daily newspapers followed his every move.
And, when he finally was free from his contractual obligation to Yomiuri and able to pursue his chance at the majors at age 39, the story was compelling enough that 40-50 journalists were with him every day through the Pirates' spring training.
All hours of the day, too.
"There were even reporters outside his home in Bradenton, waiting to see what he does," Takamiya said. "Not everybody goes that far, but some do."
Kuwata's reaction, even as he handles the dozen or so following the Pirates on this trip, is to greet them with a smile before each of his daily news conferences and the cultural nod when he is done.
"He's a true gentleman," Takamiya said.
And now that he is succeeding ...
"The story is even bigger now," said Yasuko Yanagita of the Hochi Shimbun newspaper. "If he does well for the Pirates, it's front page every time. All of the Pirates' games are on TV now, too. And it's kind of crazy, really. Nobody thought he would come to the majors with his 86 fastball and just walk right in. Everybody was interested before just to see if he would make it. Now, it is just ... amazing."
Kuwata seems plenty happy to share the story in other ways: He flew his mother, Toshie, from Japan to watch the six games on the West Coast. And his wife, Maki, and teenaged sons, Masaki and Masashi, will fly to Pittsburgh at the end of July once school is complete.
He speaks wistfully of the day they can watch him pitch at PNC Park, and he even envisions that it might be to watch a winner.
"I know they have been losing here for a long time," he said of the Pirates. "I believe baseball is not an individual game. It is a team sport. And I want to show the attitude of winning. You always have to believe. You can never give up."
Easy to believe, coming from this source.
"This has been my dream since I was 20 years old, to pitch in the major leagues. And my dream is coming true."
He shook his head.
"I can't believe this, you know?"
NOTE -- The Pirates yesterday reinstated reliever John Wasdin from the 15-day disabled list and will have him in their bullpen tonight against the Florida Marlins. Wasdin, out since May 2 because of a sprained right thumb, made five rehabilitation starts for Class AAA Indianapolis and went 1-1 with a 5.97 ERA.
First Published June 25, 2007 11:25 pm