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Rōki Sasaki: the 20-year-old tsunami survivor behind the greatest game ever pitched

There are no hitters. There are perfect games. And then there’s the kind of virtuosity that Rōki Sasaki conjured up for two and a half unforgettable hours on Sunday afternoon at the Zozo Marine Stadium outside Tokyo.

Sasaki, a right-handed flamethrower for the Chiba Lotte Marines of Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball, had one of the rarest feats in his sport when he knocked out the minimum 27 batters without letting an opponent reach base in a 6-0 win over the Orix Buffaloes, with a record 19 strikeouts in just 105 pitches. Even more remarkable, he is only 20 and grew up amid the devastation of the 2011 tsunami after his home and several family members were swept away by the water.

It was only the 16th perfect game in NPB’s history and the first in 28 years, but somehow that manages to undermine the quality of Sasaki’s masterpiece. there is sabermetry-supported reason to believe silencing the defending Pacific League champions on Sunday just might be the best game ever thrown.

After coaxing a pair of groundouts to open the game, Sasaki snapped two-time reigning Pacific League batting champion Masataka Yoshida for his first strikeout of the day. He then struckout the side in the second, third, fourth and fifth inning to set a record with 13 consecutive strikeouts, destroying Japan’s 64-year-old score of nine. (No pitcher in Major League Baseball has ever blown more than 10 in a row.)

Sasaki continued to blow through the Orix lineup in the later innings, overpowering hitters with a fastball averaging close to 100 mph, while guessing with a devastating 90s splitter that falls off the table once it reaches home plate.

Rōki Sasaki threw a perfect 19 strikeout game on Sunday that is one of the best performances in professional baseball history.

Every pitch called off by catcher Kō Matsukawa, an 18-year-old fresh out of high school, the imperious Sasaki calmly swept past the swinging Buffalos. He hit the side again in the eighth and then, down to the last batter, Sasaki rolled down his beanpole frame for the 105th and final time, fooling reigning Pacific League home run king Yutaro Sugimoto with a diving fork ball. his 19th strikeout, tied the NPB single-game record and caused a wild party at pitching mound.

“This is the best,” a beaming Sasaki told Japan’s Kyodo news agency in the aftermath. “Honestly I didn’t think of the possibility [of a perfect game]† I thought it would be good if I gave up on a hit, so I just threw and trusted Matsukawa until the end.”

It was a long journey for Sasaki, whose father and grandparents were murdered and the house swept away in the Tōhoku tsunami that flooded Japan’s northeast coast when he was in elementary school. It is a tragedy that, understandably, has stayed with him.

“It’s been 11 years, but I can’t easily erase the pain and sadness I felt then,” Sasaki said last month† “Thanks to the support I’ve had, I’ve been able to devote myself completely to baseball. I have only the feeling of gratitude to those who have supported me.”

Courted by scouts from at least 20 of Major League Baseball’s 30 teams during a career that grabbed headlines at Ofunato High School, he chose to sign with the Marines, who selected him first overall in the amateur draw. dated October prior to the 2020 season. He did not appear during his first year at the club while engaged in “physical prep” – a rarity for a No. 1 pick that made him a target for critics – but turned 3 2 with 68 strikeouts, 16 walks and a 2.27 earned run average in 11 appearances during his debut campaign last year. And now this: the first perfect game in NPB since Hiromi Makihara of the Yomiuri Giants on May 18, 1994.

His sudden rise to international fame after Sunday’s game – Sasaki’s name (#Roki Sasaki) was trending worldwide on Twitter for several hours in the aftermath – coming at a time when Japanese players are breaking through into the American mainstream as rarely before. This week, Shohei Ohtani, the two-sided LA Angels star with the once-in-a-century skills who captured the AL Most Valuable Player honors last year, became the first baseball player in nearly two decades to do so. appear on the cover of Time magazine† And Seiya Suzuki, the longtime Hiroshima Toyo Carp outfielder who joined the Chicago Cubs in March on a five-year $85 million contract, is a historically scorching start in one of America’s largest markets.

Ricki Sasaki
A composite photo shows Rōki Sasaki of the Chiba Lotte Marines during Sunday’s game against the Orix Buffaloes at Zozo Marine Stadium in Chiba, Japan. Photo: Kyodo News/Getty Images

Sasaki, who hails from the same Iwate prefecture as Ohtani, will no doubt make American fans salivate as he waits to see if he will follow suit. But thanks to the byzantine postal system between MLB and NPB, which basically stops the best players in the world from coming to the US as soon as possible, they can wait a long time.

Japanese players signing with NPB clubs must gain nine years of professional experience before signing as international free players on the open market. A caveat to the system would allow Sasaki to come over as much as three years early, but he won’t be able to maximize his earnings until he turns 25 or completes his sixth season in Japan. The bottom line: Unless he’s willing to play for below fair market value, and that assumes the Marines compel his request to be posted early, his Major League Baseball debut is unlikely to happen before 2027.

But while MLB fans are left to daydream about the future, Sasaki is focused on what he can produce now.

“Reality is slowly sinking in. I immersed myself in the experience last night,” he said Monday. “That mark in history will always remain. A player is expected to perform all season, so I switch and move on.”

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