Dodgers' Yoshinobu Yamamoto impresses in Cactus League debut

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Wednesday, February 28, 2024

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Even Shohei Ohtani was intrigued by Yoshinobu Yamamoto's exhibition debut Wednesday, making the 30-minute drive through Phoenix suburbs in a white convertible to show his support for a fellow Japanese star, even though he wasn't playing in the game.

Yamamoto put on quite a show.

The 25-year-old struck out three batters over two scoreless innings against the defending World Series champion Texas Rangers, giving a glimpse into why the Los Angeles Dodgers believe the right-hander can become a big league ace.

"I was just trying to do my job, trying to stay calm and focus on what I have to do," Yamamoto said through an interpreter.

Yamamoto opened by striking out All-Star Marcus Semien on six pitches, then gave up Evan Carter's single before Wyatt Langford grounded into an inning-ending double play.

Yamamoto started the second by striking out Nathaniel Lowe on three pitches and retiring Jonah Heim on a flyout to left. Working with a long, deliberate windup and a fastball that hovered in the mid-90s, Yamamoto ended his outing by striking out Leody Taveras on four pitches.

"I don't think it could have gone any better," Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. "He got to use his entire pitch mix. He was pounding the strike zone. He got a lot of swing and miss and he was efficient."

He threw 16 of 19 pitches for strikes, showing the impeccable command he became known for in Japan. Lowe and Taveras took particularly weak swings on strike three.

Not all went well according to plan for the Dodgers. Infielder Max Muncy, who signed a two-year, $24 million extension in November, suffered a contusion on his left hand after he was hit by a pitch from the Rangers' Cody Bradford in the first inning.

Roberts said Muncy will undergo X-rays on Thursday.

Ohtani was cheering Yamamoto's performance but is apparently a tough critic. When Yamamoto was asked how Ohtani judged the outing, the pitcher grinned and said "so-so."

Roberts said the two players quickly were building a close relationship.

"What a good teammate," Roberts said. "It's something he didn't have to do, clearly, but he wanted to come here and support his teammate."

Yamamoto has been the less-publicized part of a $1 billion offseason investment by the Dodgers into a pair of Japanese stars. Los Angeles signed Shohei Ohtani to a record $700 million, 10-year contract in December while Yamamoto finalized his $325 million, 12-year deal a few weeks later.

"I've got all support from my Dodgers teammates and they've helped me get acclimated," Yamamoto said. "It's been easy."

Ohtani has played six seasons in Major League Baseball with the Los Angeles Angels, winning two AL MVP awards and making three All-Star teams. Yamamoto is making his MLB debut this season, though his recent performances in Japan have been phenomenal.

Listed at 5-foot-10, Yamamoto has been Japan's most dominant pitchers over the past several seasons, with a 16-6 record and a 1.21 ERA for the Orix Buffaloes in 2023. He has a career 1.72 ERA in Japan in nearly 1,000 innings. His six-pitch repertoire includes a dependable splitter, an effective four-seam fastball and a vicious curveball.

The Dodgers believe he has the talent to be a staff ace in the U.S. and his presence will be vital in 2024 while Ohtani -- a rare two-way star -- recovers from an elbow injury. Ohtani will hit in 2024 but isn't expected to pitch until 2025.

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