Yoshinobu Yamamoto stifles Yankees as Dodgers win in extras

ByAlden Gonzalez ESPN logo
Saturday, June 8, 2024

NEW YORK -- The 10th pitch Yoshinobu Yamamoto fired from Yankee Stadium on Friday night traveled 98 mph. It triggered a milestone, marking the fastest pitch Yamamoto had thrown since leaving Japan to join the Los Angeles Dodgers last offseason.

It also set a tone.

Yamamoto, pitching against the team that nearly signed him in free agency, blanked the Juan Soto-less New York Yankees through seven innings and threw harder than ever, comfortably sitting at around 97 mph with a fastball that had been about two ticks slower through his first dozen major league starts. He didn't get the win -- the Dodgers didn't break through until the 11th inning, when Teoscar Hernandez's two-run double broke a scoreless tie and led to a 2-1 victory -- but he showed something bigger.

"You could just see it," Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said of Yamamoto. "He felt it. He knew we needed it, and it brought out the best in him. I can't say enough about his effort tonight."

The Dodgers, coming off a demoralizing series loss to the lowlyPittsburgh Pirates and struggling offensively for about three weeks, have seen Yamamoto evolve through his first two-plus months in the major leagues.

An ugly debut from South Korea led to a seven-start stretch in which he posted a 1.76 ERA. Along the way, Yamamoto introduced a two-seamer and a slider as weapons against right-handed hitters. He got hit around near the end of May, giving up 10 runs on 18 hits in 17 innings. But he bounced back with six innings of one-run ball against the Colorado Rockies on the first day of June, then turned in his finest start Friday against a far superior lineup, limiting the Yankees to four baserunners while striking out seven in the opener of this highly anticipated weekend series.

His ERA is down to 3.00.

"The things he did in Japan, he showed today," Hernandez said. "He didn't win three MVPs and three Cy Youngs just because he's Yoshinobu. He's a good pitcher, and he showed it today."

Most encouraging, though, was that he did it largely on the strength of his four-seam fastball -- the pitch that helped him garner a record-setting 12-year, $325 million contract in December, but one that had been hit particularly hard early on this season. Yamamoto threw a season-high 56 four-seam fastballs Friday and watched the Yankees produce one hit against them. Six were thrown at 98 mph, further bolstering his dynamic curveball and splitter. Twenty-one others touched 97, a velocity he had reached just three times before.

Yamamoto, speaking through an interpreter, said the uptick was a byproduct of his mechanics "working very well today," though he didn't specify any changes. Roberts alluded to the adrenaline of pitching at Yankee Stadium, which drew a season-high 48,048 fans, as an additional reason. But Roberts also believes Yamamoto can pitch at those velocities if his mechanics are sound and his delivery is repeatable.

"He signed the deal he did for a reason -- he's a great pitcher," said Aaron Judge, who produced the Yankees' only run with a one-out single in the bottom of the 11th. "Besides having elite stuff, he's got great command. I think that's what we really noticed today was we'd get into hitter's counts and he still wouldn't give in to the heart of the plate. He really lived on the edges and could work any pitch at any time. That curveball, splitter and that good heater that ran up to 97, 98 tonight. He kept guys off balance, kept us on the ground, and we couldn't get anything in the air."

The Yankees were once considered among the favorites to land Yamamoto, along with the Dodgers and the crosstown-rival New York Mets. They staged meetings with him on both coasts and got up to $300 million with their offer before watching him sign with a Dodgers team that had recently added countryman Shohei Ohtani, prompting an eventual Yankees pivot to Marcus Stroman.

On Friday, they got a firsthand look at what they missed.

"The Yankees are a great team, and I appreciate their interest in me during the negotiation, like with some of the teams I negotiated with and had a meeting with," Yamamoto said. "All the teams were great, and I appreciate them equally. But when I face them, it's just a normal game."

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