Yoshinobu Yamamoto sharp after rocky debut, but Dodgers lose

ByAlden Gonzalez ESPN logo
Sunday, March 31, 2024

LOS ANGELES --Yoshinobu Yamamoto's debut with the Los Angeles Dodgers, on the heels of attaining the largest contract ever for a starting pitcher, lasted only one inning and saw him get charged with five earned runs, nearly a quarter of his total through an entire prior season in Japan. It followed two rough outings in spring training, casting early doubt on Yamamoto's ability to transition to the world's most advanced baseball league in the United States.

"There's a lot of confidence and there's a lot of pride and fire," Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said of Yamamoto, an athlete he is still learning. "And appreciating the contract and his part of the deal -- I think he takes it personal. And took it personal. He was really intent on pitching well for his home debut."

Yamamoto, making his second start nine days after a nightmare opener from South Korea, kept the St. Louis Cardinals scoreless through five mostly dominant innings on Saturday night and would have pitched deeper into the game if not for the 35-minute rain delay that occurred after the fourth.

Dodgers reliever Joe Kelly allowed five runs in the top of the seventh and Shohei Ohtani flied out with his team trailing by one and the bases loaded in the bottom of the 10th, prompting a 6-5 loss -- but the encouragement around Yamamoto's start overcame all of that.

Yamamoto, speaking through an interpreter, said he felt like he "had my stuff back." He added that he didn't make many adjustments heading in but was simply "calm today."

"You hate to admit it or say it, but I think it was more nerves than anything," Dodgers assistant pitching coach Connor McGuiness said of the struggles around his first start. "For him to kind of be able to get through that and experience that, that inning snowballing on him, to watch him bounce back the way he did -- he's a special talent, man."

Yamamoto struck out five hitters, including the first three he faced, and generated eight of his nine swings and misses on his splitter and curveball. The latter has often been used as a pitch to get back into counts, as opposed to a splitter that works to finish hitters off, but McGuiness was encouraged to see Yamamoto get in-zone swings and misses with a curveball that is by far his slowest pitch, thrown mostly in the upper-70s.

Yamamoto's upper-90s four-seam fastball, another elite pitch that is hard to pick up from his low arm slot, was thrown for a strike 79% of the time on Saturday, compared with 43% of the time in Korea. The cutter, a pitch he uses mostly to dart in on opposing left-handed batters, was mostly abandoned because the other three offerings were working so well, McGuiness added.

"He did an amazing job bouncing back, not letting the first one affect him," said Dodgers outfielder-turned-shortstop Mookie Betts, who homered for the fourth time on Saturday and is riding a 2.109 OPS through his first five games. "Even the day of that first start, you couldn't really tell what went on. It's really neat to see someone with a lot of pressure and whatnot on him handle everything so well."

Yamamoto won three consecutive MVPs with the Orix Buffaloes in Japan, then signed a 12-year, $325 million contract with the Dodgers on Dec. 21, agreeing to terms 12 days after Ohtani landed a 10-year, $700 million deal. Yamamoto wowed teammates with his stuff and command early in camp. But he gave up nine runs in 7 innings in his last two Cactus League starts, then was shelled by the San Diego Padres in his regular-season debut, allowing four hits, a walk, a hit by pitch and a wild pitch before recording the third out.

Yamamoto made a subtle adjustment heading into his second start, keeping his hands slightly higher when he gets to a set position in his windup before breaking his right hand away from his glove to fire a pitch. It helped to sync up his delivery, Roberts said. The Dodgers, though, didn't overwhelm him with recommendations heading into his Dodger Stadium debut. In the early stages of their relationship, they've been letting Yamamoto and his personal trainer, Osamu Yada, set the tone.

"It's definitely a new style for us to look at, so we're excited to kind of learn from him," McGuiness said. "We really are just trying to learn his verbiage and playbook and how he goes about it. Just make sure he's comfortable out there. We'll slowly teach him some of the things as we go along. But it was really impressive for him to bounce back the way he did, not worry about the delay, go give us the extra inning. That was massive for the bullpen. I couldn't have been more proud of what he did today."

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