Kodai Senga watched with admiration. He watched with envy.
He watched Yu Darvish and Masahiro Tanaka marque MLB stars look helpless. He watched Japanese standouts of lesser stature observe that they belonged connected baseball’s biggest stage. He watched dozens of his countrymen unrecorded his dream, arsenic helium remained successful Japan.
His declaration near him nary choice.
The Fukuoka Softbank Hawks ace voiced his tendency to articulation MLB years ago, but each gathering with ownership and absorption ended with rejection. He pitched for the lone squad successful Nippon Professional Baseball that has ne'er made its players available to MLB franchises via the posting system.
“He was decidedly frustrated, but helium would ne'er travel retired and accidental it retired of respect for the organization,” said erstwhile pitcher Dennis Sarfate, Senga’s longtime teammate (2014-21). “He could person been successful the large leagues astatine 25 and been established, similar Tanaka oregon [Shohei] Ohtani. He was acceptable to go.”
Senga made his nonrecreational debut astatine 19. He was connected the doorstep of 30 erstwhile helium came to California arsenic a escaped cause to statesman discussions with aggregate MLB teams. The time earlier gathering with the Mets, Senga made a speedy stopover successful Arizona to person meal with Sarfate, his teammate connected six title teams and a Brooklyn autochthonal who grew up going to games astatine Shea Stadium.
Before traveling to New York for the archetypal clip successful his life, Senga asked his person what playing determination would beryllium like.
“I conscionable told him, ‘You amended bash good,’” Sarfate said. “It tin beryllium pugnacious if you’re not playing up to that signing, truthful you amended gain that $15 cardinal a twelvemonth due to the fact that they’ll fto you cognize if you’re not.
“I thought he’d prime the West Coast, being person to Japan and with the travel, and helium works retired with [San Diego’s] Darvish successful the offseason. But I conjecture helium wanted the large lights.”
The spotlight is attractive due to the fact that it was ne'er expected to spell adjacent him.
Long earlier signing a five-year, $75 cardinal deal with the Mets — earlier winning Japan’s pitching Triple Crown and aggregate Golden Glove awards, earlier throwing a no-hitter, starring astatine the World Baseball Classic and winning an Olympic golden medal — Senga was an anonymous three-digit player.
He wasn’t deemed worthy of a spot connected a 70-man roster. He was akin to an NFL practice-squad player, donning a jersey with 3 numbers to separate him from the applicable players with a aboriginal successful baseball. The Hawks took 3 different developmental players successful the 2010 Nippon Professional Baseball Draft among 68 players wide taken earlier Senga earlier selecting a country infielder from Gamagori High School — astir 180 miles southwest of Tokyo — whose fastball didn’t interaction 90 mph.
Pitching-specific grooming changed that. He earned a promotion successful 2012, upgrading his jersey from No. 128 to 21 and getting bumped to a wage of 4.4 cardinal yen ($33,117). In his archetypal afloat play successful 2013, helium tied the Pacific League grounds for a reliever by pitching 34.1 consecutive scoreless innings and was selected for the NPB All-Star Game.
“No 1 knew thing astir him, but past helium took Japan by storm,” Sarfate said. “I saw him erstwhile helium was raw. I retrieve erstwhile helium got called up, and his archetypal 2 games, helium was pumping 99. And I’m like, ‘Who is this skinny kid?’ When I saw him past month, I’m like, man, Senga is enactment unneurotic now. He has worked a batch connected gaining musculus and strength.
“He came from a three-digit fig and helium has thing to prove. He conscionable worked truly hard. He’s a competitor.”
Senga excelled contempt suffering aggregate injuries successful his archetypal fewer seasons past became a full-time starter successful 2016. In 11 seasons, helium went 87-44 with a 2.59 ERA, doubly starring the league successful strikeouts. Last season, helium went 11-6 with a 1.94 ERA.
His fastball tin apical 100 mph. His splitter is an illusion. The “ghost fork” shares the aforesaid merchandise constituent arsenic his fastball past violently drops from the zone, and Senga gets swings-and-misses connected much than 50 percent of swings against it (an equivalent whiff complaint to Jacob deGrom’s slider). Half of Senga’s strikeouts past play came from the pitch.
Japanese opponents notation to him arsenic a “super pitcher,” according to erstwhile Saitama Seibu Lions outfielder Brian O’Grady, who noted Senga’s stature successful his homeland was akin to Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander successful the States.
“It felt similar facing a Cy Young-type guy,” said O’Grady, who antecedently played with the Reds, Rays and Padres. “The fastball had immoderate much beingness than it looked similar connected video. The driblet that helium has connected the splitter, it legit needed to commencement supra my caput to beryllium a strike. I chased plentifulness successful the ungraded and fastballs conscionable supra the zone.
“I haven’t truly seen worldly similar that here. It’s conscionable a hard drop. It’s pugnacious to prime up the quality from the fastball.”
Moving much than 7,000 miles from location presents challenges. A afloat location for a large crippled astatine Citi Field shouldn’t beryllium 1 of them.
Senga pitched the opening crippled of 4 consecutive Japan Series, helping the Hawks go the archetypal squad successful much than 4 decades to triumph 4 consecutive titles successful the league.
“We were the Yankees of Japan,” Sarfate said. “He was portion of immoderate large games. You’re a stone prima implicit there. You’re getting 50,000 fans a crippled and they’re screaming the full time. It’s not similar a societal happening wherever you spell to the Yankees game. It’s specified a antithetic feel. The cheering conception doesn’t stop. They merchantability brew until the 3rd retired successful the ninth inning. It is not an casual setting. The reporters are not casual connected them. Everything is scrutinized, truthful if you had a atrocious game, it was each implicit Japan. Every crippled is similar a World Series game. It’s nuts. The crushed would shingle from the sound level.”
At the 2017 World Baseball Classic, Senga was named to the all-tournament squad aft allowing 1 tally successful 11 full innings, striking retired 16. In 2 innings against the United States, Senga struck retired 4 past and aboriginal MVPs (Giancarlo Stanton, Christian Yelich, Buster Posey, Andrew McCutchen) and erstwhile All-Star Eric Hosmer. In the 2020 Olympics gold-medal crippled successful Japan, helium threw a scoreless inning of relief.
“He’s got confidence, and he’s not gonna beryllium shy astir that,” Sarfate said. “But helium ne'er erstwhile got arrogant. He treated everyone the same, treated everyone with respect. He was ever the aforesaid Senga you could gag with. He ne'er took himself excessively seriously. I utilized to alteration the labels connected his locker, changing his sanction to ‘superstar,’ and helium conscionable laughed it off.
“He doesn’t spell out. He’s not a partier. He was conscionable precise quiescent and did his work. If helium has a atrocious archetypal outing, helium won’t attraction successful presumption of letting it get to him. He’ll conscionable enactment harder. Practicing is what [Japanese players] unrecorded for. Their reward is the game. He mightiness not person the glamour of Ohtani, but arsenic acold arsenic stuff-wise, they’re precise comparable. He’s getting a aboriginal start, but I inactive deliberation he’s susceptible of producing the aforesaid worldly helium was doing implicit there.”
Senga often saw Ohtani erstwhile the aboriginal AL MVP starred for the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters. Senga learned from Darvish, different erstwhile Fighters ace turned MLB All-Star. American teammates filled successful each different blank the funny and burgeoning prima was lone permitted to ideate connected the different broadside of the Pacific.
“He was ever asking questions astir the large leagues,” said erstwhile teammate Colin Rea. “He was precise funny successful uncovering retired different pitchers’ routines, who is astatine the apical of the large leagues, ever trying to find retired what they were doing and wherefore they were capable to person specified large success.”
Though Senga is acceptable to look the toughest acceptable of lineups of his vocation — and acceptable to crook 30 adjacent period — his longtime teammate believes the right-hander’s champion enactment whitethorn inactive beryllium ahead.
“I erstwhile saw him commencement a crippled with 7 consecutive sliders, and I went into the clubhouse and asked him, ‘Senga, did you conscionable propulsion 7 freaking sliders to commencement the game?’” Sarfate said. “He said the catcher called for it, and I said, ‘No, you shingle him off.’ But [Japanese pitchers] don’t shake. They person these meetings wherever the catcher is the guy, and you perceive to him. For immoderate guys, it’s great. But for a feline with his talent, helium has much of an upside with an American catcher and American pitching coaches and the unit he’s moving with teaching him caller things.”
Senga could person chosen a metropolis wherever the shot squad lives successful the shadiness of different sports (Toronto, Texas). He could person joined a franchise without a generations-long rubric drought (Dodgers, Red Sox, Giants). He could person signed with the Padres oregon Angels and ne'er exposed himself to a fraction of the imaginable disapproval that volition travel with immoderate underwhelming commencement successful the country’s biggest marketplace — arsenic portion of the largest payroll successful the sport’s past — connected a squad expecting to triumph its archetypal World Series successful 37 years.
“As a ballplayer, it’s indispensable to unrecorded my beingness ever aiming higher,” Senga told reporters past winter.
He’d waited years for this opportunity. He’d longed for specified freedom.
He couldn’t purpose immoderate higher.