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Sasaki, Mariners a perfect fit

Seattle had to project a bit to see how effective their new reliever would be. They might have underestimated.

By MARC TOPKIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 10, 2000


NEW YORK -- Everyone knows by now about the pride of the Yankees, about Jeter and Bernie and Mo and El Duque and the Rocket. And despite playing in the media vacuum of Seattle, Mariners stars such as A-Rod and Edgar and Ricky have reputations that proceed them.

But when the AL Championship Series opens tonight at Yankee Stadium, the Mariners are poised to introduce sporting America to their latest sensation, Japanese import Kazuhiro (Kazu) Sasaki.

It should be fun.

Sasaki's sterling performance this season, a rookie-record 37 saves, technically makes him a not-so-secret weapon. But to many baseball fans around the country, he is something -- Yeah, baby -- of an international man of mystery.

To the Mariners, though, the 32-year-old right-hander is much more than that. He just might be the biggest reason they're here, four wins from the World Series.

"I don't know where we'd be if we didn't have him," catcher Joe Oliver said.

For what seems like forever, the Mariners have lacked a dependable closer. Sasaki who was the all-time saves leader in the Japanese League, was pining to prove himself against the best players in the world. Factor in a large Asian population in Seattle and the team's Japanese-based ownership group, and the union, in the words of M's vice president Roger Jongewaard, "just was a nice fit."

The Mariners weren't sure what they were getting because Sasaki was coming off surgery to remove bone chips from his right elbow. After a December workout where Sasaki's fastball topped out at 85-86 mph, general manager Pat Gillick acknowledged they had "a lot of projection to do."

Still, the Mariners were impressed enough to outbid a handful of teams, including the Diamondbacks, Mets and Rangers, and sign Sasaki to a two-year, $6-million deal.

The projections, by the way, worked out. The Mariners planned to break in Sasaki by using him in middle relief, but he pitched so well in spring training he won the closer's job. Now he might be the player who gets the Mariners into the World Series.

"And as the season has progressed, he's just gotten better and better," manager Lou Piniella said. "He's really done a great job for us. He has all that experience closing in Japan, and it shows. He's unflappable. His fastball's gotten better as the year has gone forward. He's got that good split-finger. And he likes being out there at the end."

"He's been lights out," shortstop Alex Rodriguez said. "Just lights out."

At the start of the season, the Mariners players, wondering about the quality of play in Japan, wanted to see just how good Sasaki was.

Sasaki, the likely AL Rookie of the Year, didn't mind. "There's not a time where I felt like I had to prove myself," he said. "I'm just working hard every day, that's all I've been thinking about."

With a fastball that now clocks in at 96 mph, Sasaki is tough. But with perhaps the nastiest split-finger pitch in the game -- nicknamed the "Thang" -- he can be downright unhittable.

The most common comparison observers make is with former Marlins closer Bryan Harvey. But journeyman infielder Jeff Manto, who played against Sasaki in Japan, took it one step further, calling him "a cross between Bryan Harvey in his prime and Sidd Finch," Sports Illustrated's mythical phenom.

"I couldn't tell you how many times people have gone and asked the umpire to check the ball, just wondering what the hell the pitch was," outfielder Jay Buhner said.

While major-league hitters are having a hard time getting used to Sasaki's pitches, he is doing pretty well adjusting to the major leagues.

To ease the transition, the Mariners hired a full-time interpreter and companion, 24-year-old BYU student Allen Turner, who hangs out with Sasaki on the road, stands with him during batting practice and sits with him in the bullpen during games.

Turner said the adjustments have been simple, that Sasaki is learning the culture, the language (from -- shudder here grammarians -- ESPN) and the food. "We'll try to find an Italian restaurant, Burger King, whatever," Turner said. "Food is not a problem."

Sasaki said the pace and length of the big-league season is the biggest difference. "I got used to the travel, but the schedule is very hard," Sasaki said. "There aren't any breaks, that's the hardest.

Sasaki was something of an icon in his homeland, earning the nickname "Daimajin" after a mythical God-like character from a 1960s Japanese movie, and the Japanese media has been following his success closely.

A half-dozen Japanese newspapers and a couple of TV networks cover the Mariners on a regular basis, with more expected this week. Sasaki also is featured in a weekly TV show.

"Everyone there knows his name," said Pancho Ito of Fuji-TV. "He's one of the biggest stars."

The Mariners are fond of him too, though they are not above some devious pranks. One Mariner told him he was teaching him a proper greeting and sent him off to talk with Rodriguez; Sasaki ended up requesting a rather, um, unnatural act, drawing plenty of howls.

"He's interacted from day one; now he's starting to understand us more, understand the language more," pitcher Brett Tomko said. "He's joking around. He knows what we're saying to him, and he gives it back to us the best he can."

Where Sasaki really fits in is in the receiving line at the end of a successful game, offering each teammate a handshake -- and a bow.

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