In the top of the eighth inning of the World Baseball Classic semi-final Tuesday night between Japan and the U.S., Japanese relief pitcher Kodai Senga gave up an RBI fielder’s choice to Adam Jones that plated Brandon Crawford and put the Americans up 2-1. Third baseman Nobuhiro Matsuda bobbled the ball on the wet field but it was ruled an earned run—Senga’s first of the tournament and, since Team U.S.A held the lead to eliminate Japan, his last.
For that, Senga was saddled with Japan’s only loss of the 2017 World Baseball Classic, but to the extent that the tournament serves as a showcase for international players, probably what people will remember about Senga is this sequence:
That’s Senga, who is 24 years old and plays professionally for the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, striking out All-Stars and/or Silver Sluggers Eric Hosmer, Andrew McCutchen, Buster Posey, Giancarlo Stanton, and Christian Yelich last night. Those five strikeouts over two innings of relief brought his tournament totals up to 16 strikeouts in 11 innings, which currently leads all WBC pitchers.
Two-time WBC champs Team Japan were without MLB stars Masahiro Tanaka and Yu Darvish—Houston Astros outfielder Nori Aoki was the only major-league member of the Japanese roster—and without Shohei Otani, Nippon Professional Baseball’s dinger-smashing pitcher/DH whose transition to MLB is just a matter of time. This lack of star power may have very well cost Japan its shot at winning the tournament, but it also allowed lesser-known players like Senga to step into the spotlight.
In his first full seasons as a starter in the Japanese Pacific League in 2016, Senga posted a 2.61 ERA and struck out 181 batters over 169 innings. That’s not quite the same SO/9 clip he managed in the WBC, a small sample during which he faced almost exclusively batters who had never seen him before, but it was good for second among qualified JPL starters in his 23-year-old season. Senga mixes a mid-90s fastball with a slider and a deceptive forkball that he throws for swing-and-miss strikeouts, and both pitches had hitters reeling during the WBC.
It’s probably too soon to start thinking about how Senga might project as a starter in MLB—though another strong season in the JPL would certainly get him on a few teams’ radars—and Otani Watch will remain the dominant storyline for American fans who keep an eye on JPL baseball. For now, it’s enough to just appreciate a young gun facing some of the best hitters America has to offer, and mowing them down.