The Japanese phenom is expected to start Sunday, with a streak of 52 consecutive retired batters on the line.
Any time a pitcher returns to the mound after a no-hitter or perfect game, the name Johnny Vander Meer is evoked. In 1938, Vander Meer followed up one no-hitter with another in his next start for the Cincinnati Reds.
Of course, despite the predictable anticipation, no one has matched Vander Meer’s feat in the major leagues.
But Roki Sasaki very nearly did it in Japan, following a perfect game — the rare feat of retiring all 27 batters in a game without allowing a base runner — with eight more perfect innings this week before being pulled.
The near record caused a fuss both in Japan and the United States, and has many in baseball eagerly anticipating his next start, expected on Sunday, when his Chiba Lotte Marines take on the Orix Buffaloes at the Kyocera Dome in Osaka.
At 20 years old and with a 100-mile-an-hour fastball, Sasaki was already on many major league scouts’ radar. But they could not have foreseen the dazzling performances of his last two starts.
His perfect game on April 10 was the first in the Japanese majors since 1994. Sasaki struck out 19 batters, completing a game for the ages.
The 6-0 victory for the Marines over Orix was the first complete game of his career.
On Sunday, Sasaki was, amazingly, unhittable again. He threw eight perfect innings with 14 strikeouts against the Nippon Ham Fighters. But he couldn’t get any run support, and with the score 0-0 heading into the ninth, Manager Tadahito Iguchi of the Marines decided 102 pitches was enough.
“I think I did my job,” Sasaki told Asahi Shimbun in an epic understatement. “I left the mound, and I was convinced” by the decision to pull him. The Fighters won in 10 innings, 1-0.
“A record is a record, but it is important to get the win and for Roki to firmly stay in the team’s pitching rotation for the year,” Iguchi said.
Counting an out he got at the end of the start before his perfecto, Sasaki has now retired 52 consecutive batters.
Sasaki grew up in Iwate Prefecture in Japan’s northeast. His father was killed in the 2011 tsunami, and his house was swept away. “It’s been 11 years but I cannot easily erase the agony and sadness I felt at the time,” Sasaki told Kyodo News last month.
After success in high school, he was handled carefully by the Marines, not pitching at all in 2020 while he did a strength training program. He appeared in just 11 games in 2021, with a 4-2 record and a 1.84 E.R.A., before a planned full load this year. In addition to his 100 m.p.h. heater, Sasaki throws a highly touted splitter.
Despite Sasaki’s heroics, the Marines, based in Chiba City about 25 miles east of Tokyo, are off to a slow start and are under .500. Assuming Sasaki starts Sunday, as expected (midnight Eastern time, 9 p.m. Pacific on Saturday), he will face the Buffaloes, the team that knocked the Marines out in the semifinals of last year’s playoffs.
Can Sasaki spin another masterpiece? It hardly seems impossible: He was already perfect against the Buffaloes once, and Orix is a sub-.500 team that has scored the fewest runs in Japan so far this season, an average of just 2.5 a game.