Japanese baseball phenom Roki Sasaki throws 17 straight perfect innings

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Roki Sasaki didn’t pitch a perfect second straight game, but that doesn’t mean his effort Sunday wasn’t similarly immaculate.

The Japanese phenom was perfect through eight innings before he was pulled from what would become a 1-0, 10-inning loss for his Chiba Lotte Marines against the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters.

Just 20 years old and in his second season in Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB), Japan’s highest tier in the sport, Sasaki has now thrown 17 straight perfect innings. He has set an NPB record by not allowing a base runner in 52 consecutive opposing plate appearances.

Sasaki was lifted Sunday after throwing 102 pitches and striking out 14 batters, including the final three he faced. The Marines have taken a very cautious approach with him since winning a 2019 draft-day lottery for the right to sign Sasaki out of high school.

That approach, which included keeping him out of game action for the entire 2020 season as he built up his strength, has begun to pay off in a huge way this year.

In his second start of 2022, which took place one week ago, Sasaki delivered one of the greatest pitching performances of all time. His of him completed perfect game included 19 strikeouts and, at one point, 13 in a row, with a total pitch count of just 105. His game score of 106 was higher than any recorded in Major League Baseball history for a nine-inning start. (The Chicago Cubs’ Kerry Wood earned a 105 for his 20-strikeout, one-hit domination of the Houston Astros in 1998.) It was the perfect 16th in NPB history and the first since 1994.

That would be a tough act for anyone to follow, but Sasaki came close to repeating the feat one Sunday later. “I felt some fatigue,” he said afterward (via the Japanese Times), “and I’m satisfied how I finished.”

“If you think about what’s best in the long run, I thought he reached his limit today,” said Marines Manager Tadahito Iguchi, a former MLB second baseman. “By the end of the seventh inning, he was getting close to hitting the wall.”

After Sasaki departed the 0-0 contest, Marines closer Naoya Masuda got three strikeouts in a scoreless ninth inning, but a Fighters batter reached base on a dropped third strike, ending the combined perfect game. The Marines still took a no-hitter into the 10th, when Yuji Nishino replaced Masuda, but the Fighters’ Chusei Mannami then hit a game-winning home run.

“This was so exciting, I don’t have words,” Mannami said afterward. “Our guys just hung in there, and we kept saying on the bench, ‘Let’s get something going.’

“I have [Sasaki] it’s just too tough. The way that forkball drops? Forget about it.”

Sasaki hails from northeastern Japan, which was hit hard by a devastating earthquake and ensuing tsunami in 2011. Among the lives lost in that catastrophe was that of his father, who was killed when their home was swept away (per the Kyodo Times), forcing Sasaki and his remaining family to relocate. He became a national sensation and began to attract the attention of MLB scouts while in high school, where Sasaki unfurled 100-mph fastballs.

Iguchi’s lifting of Sasaki after eight immaculate innings Sunday echoed a decision made Wednesday by Los Angeles Dodgers Manager Dave Roberts, who Clayton Kershaw pulled from a start after the pitcher was perfect through seven innings against the Minnesota Twins. Kershaw said afterward that while he “would have loved to have stayed” in the game, in which he threw 80 pitches, Roberts made “the right decision” to take him out.

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