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[NPB NOTEBOOK] Roki Sasaki Sidelined with an Oblique Muscle Injury

Hard-throwing right-hander Roki Sasaki, who leads NPB in strikeouts, was recently diagnosed with the injury and is expected to be sidelined for two months.

We begin this installment of the NPB Notebook with disappointing news for the Chiba Lotte Marines and their star pitcher Roki Sasaki.

Lotte manager and former MLB pitcher Masato Yoshii said on Tuesday, July 25 that Japan's hardest-throwing pitcher will be sidelined for about two months with a left oblique-muscle injury.

The 21-year-old Sasaki was on the mound on Monday, July 24 in a game against the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks.

He went six innings while striking out nine and giving up one run on four hits with one walk in a 93-pitch effort. After the sixth, Yoshii went over to Sasaki to let him know his night was done.

Everything appeared to be normal.

The Marines were trailing 1-0 at the time and the team came back with two runs in the bottom of the ninth for the win so Sasaki didn't figure in the decision.

According to media reports, Sasaki did appear to be in some discomfort on his 90th pitch of the game.

Sasaki, who became NPB's youngest perfect-game pitcher in April 2022, was a key member of the national team in this year's World Baseball Classic where Samurai Japan captured its third title.

The injury comes just two weeks after the right hander struck out 14 batters over seven innings in a 5-3 win over the Orix Buffaloes. He threw 104 pitches in that game.

Sasaki leads Japanese pro baseball with 130 strikeouts and is 7-2 with a 1.48 ERA in 85 innings this season for the Pacific League's Marines.

Roki Sasaki
Roki Sasaki is the NPB leader in strikeouts (130) through July 25. (ⒸSANKEI)

Doctor's Prognosis for Sasaki

"The doctor said it will take two months for him to be back throwing at full strength," Yoshii said, according to Kyodo News.

It's a major blow for the Marines (45-34-4 through July 27), who are battling the Hawks (45-40-2) and the Buffaloes (51-34-2) for top spot in the PL. And it's also an injury that MLB scouts will monitor closely as Sasaki is widely seen as a player coveted by teams in the majors.

Oblique muscle injuries are quite common in sports. They are the muscles that lie alongside the rectus abdominis muscles that make up the "six-pack" and are responsible for core control and rotation.

In an article on, former Los Angeles Dodgers athletic trainer Stan Conte explained the uptick in oblique injuries.

"Players are bigger, stronger, faster than ever," Conte said. "And it has led to an increase in velocity and bat speed …  if the oblique isn't strong enough to handle the force from the legs, it gives."

The time frame of two months that Sasaki will be out is consistent with injuries of this type.

Tampa Bay Rays starting pitcher Tyler Glasnow, who is back now, suffered an injury to his oblique muscle during spring training in February and was out two months.

Are the Marines Overusing Sasaki?

Of course, when an injury like this occurs, there are the inevitable questions of whether the Marines are overusing Sasaki. My impression is the team has been very cautious with their young star, not allowing him to go too deep into games.

Both Yoshii and Sasaki's previous manager, Tadahito Iguchi, spent time in the majors where pitchers tend to adhere to strict pitch counts.

Here's hoping for a speedy recovery for Sasaki. The Marines need him and so does NPB.

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Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks right-hander Carter Stewart Jr pitches on July 26. (SANKEI)

Stewart Gets First NPB Win

It was a long time coming, but SoftBank pitcher Carter Stewart Jr finally got his first win in Japan.

The 23-year-old Stewart (1-2) allowed one unearned run on six hits and a walk over six innings on Wednesday, July 26 while striking out six to lead the Hawks to a 7-1 road victory over the Buffaloes at Kyocera Dome.

Stewart, a 198-cm right-hander, signed with SoftBank in 2019 after turning down the Atlanta Braves, who made him the eighth overall pick in MLB's 2018 amateur draft.

He was seen as the first marquee American amateur to turn his back on MLB and instead opt to start his pro career in Japan.

Stewart's big win also snapped an excruciating 12-game losing streak for the Hawks.

"Today was an exciting day all around," Stewart told Kyodo News. "I'm very excited to get my first win and glad we could get off that losing streak."

He added, "I was very aggressive today. From the first pitch, I was just attacking hitters, getting ahead on guys, and that helped me get outs and not throw too many pitches."

Carter Stewart Jr and Hawks manager Hiroshi Fujimoto pose for a photo after the pitcher earned his first NPB win on July 26. (ⒸSANKEI)

The debate over whether Stewart made the right move in coming to Japan is still very much open.

He spent a long time languishing in Japan's minor leagues. Could he have gone to the top team faster (and made more money in the process) had he signed with the Braves? 

It's hard to answer that question but a player of his potential wants to get the most out of the limited number of years he has. Were those years in the Japanese minors worth it? We'll see.

Tokyo Yakult Swallows outfielder Norichika Aoki is hit by a pitch in the seventh inning against the Hiroshima Carp on July 26 at Mazda Zoom-Zoom Stadium. (KYODO)

Scary Moment for Aoki

Tokyo Yakult Swallows outfielder Norichika Aoki was hit in the head by a pitch in the seventh inning of Wednesday, July 26's game against the Hiroshima Carp.

The 41-year-old Aoki was hit by a 154-kph fastball by Hiroshima relief pitcher Ryoji Kuribayashi.

Aoki, a former MLB player, went down in a heap as Hiroshima's Mazda Zoom-Zoom Stadium went silent.

The veteran outfielder lay motionless on the ground for several minutes before being taken off on a stretcher and sent to a nearby hospital for a CT scan.

Norichika Aoki falls to the ground after being hit by a pitch on July 26. (ⒸSANKEI)

"He was taken to a hospital but I don't know much beyond that," Yakult manager Shingo Takatsu said after the game.

Takatsu added, "He was conscious and responding to questions."

Aoki did appear in warmups the following day but did not play in Thursday's 4-1 loss to the Carp.

Hiroshima Carp lefty Hiroki Tokoda leads the pitching staff with nine wins. (KYODO)

Carp Seize the Lead

And speaking of the Carp, you may be surprised to see the Hiroshima team at the top of the Central League standings.

Left-handed pitcher Hiroki Tokoda allowed just one run on four hits over 7⅓ innings on Thursday as the Carp (52-38) took over the lead in the Central League standings with their 10th straight win.

As of this writing (Friday, July 28) Tokoda led the CL with a stellar 1.85 ERA and was tied for the most wins at nine with Shosei Togo of the Yomiuri Giants.

Ryoma Nishikawa (KYODO)

At the plate, Ryoma Nishikawa is second with a .327 batting average and has 40 runs batted in while Carp teammate Shogo Akiyama, a former major leaguer, is not far behind at .301 with 34 RBIs.

The Carp are clearly thriving under first-year manager Takahiro Arai, who played for both the Carp and the Hanshin Tigers before retiring after the 2018 season.

Fallin' Fighters

These are tough times for Tsuyoshi Shinjo and the Hokkaido Nipponham Fighters.

Prior to their 3-2 win over the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles on Wednesday, July 26 in Sendai, the Fighters had lost 13 in a row including eight by one run.

Hokkaido Nipponham Fighters manager Tsuyoshi Shinjo is seen at Hotto Motto Field Kobe on July 22. (SANKEI)

After moving into fourth place in the standings, the Fighters have fallen back into last place. And should they stay there it would be the second season in a row where they finished last.

One has to wonder how long management is going to stick with Shinjo. Yes, he's entertaining and is a fan favorite, but the losing starts to wear thin after a while.

Author: Jim Armstrong

The author is a longtime journalist who has covered sports in Japan for over 25 years. You can find his articles on SportsLook.


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