The Takashi Saito who has already blown two saves isn’t the same Takashi Saito who was an All-Star last year.
Pitching coach Rick Honeycutt said he sees it every time Saito delivers a slider that misses the plate, and Saito himself said he feels it every time he steps on the mound. Even when Saito has managed to put up zeros, as was the case in the ninth inning of the Dodgers’ extra-inning victory over the Colorado Rockies on Sunday, the outs haven’t come easily.
“You still haven’t seen the real guy yet,” first-year Manager Joe Torre said he was recently told by Honeycutt.
To everyone involved, the reason is obvious: Saito hasn’t pitched enough.
A strained right calf limited him to six outings in spring training, and, because of the Dodgers’ poor form to start the season, he’s had only four save opportunities. He has posted a 2.61 earned-run average in nine outings, up from 1.40 last season.
Saito didn’t pitch once on the Dodgers’ five-game trip to Atlanta and Cincinnati this month, and his six consecutive games without an appearance were the most in his major league career.
Saito may be 38 and he may have played 14 professional seasons in Japan before coming to the United States in 2006, but the experience is new to him. When he was the closer for the Yokohama BayStars in 2001 and 2002, he said, he had prolonged periods of inactivity, but they fell in the middle or at the end of seasons.
“In the past, there have been times when I’ve had back-to-back outings, then had a few days off,” he said. “But I’ve never had anything like this, four, five games in a row without pitching, especially not this early in the year. I feel like I’m learning something new.”
Saito said he hasn’t felt completely comfortable on the mound. He isn’t shy about shaking off catcher Russell Martin -- he says he does so about once every batter -- but doesn’t trust his own judgment at this point.
“My feel for hitters has dulled,” he said. “I’m having trouble sensing what they’re looking for and what they’re trying to do.”
And even if he leaves the calling of the game entirely in Martin’s hands, he said, “you throw the same pitch different depending on whether you think the hitter will be swinging or not.”
But, according to Honeycutt, Saito’s problems aren’t entirely mental.
“For me, we haven’t seen the off-speed pitches being sharp,” Honeycutt said. “It’s just the release point.”
Particularly with the slider.
Honeycutt said he noticed that when Saito manages to keep the pitch low, he often misses on the first-base side of home plate, and that when he tries to make an adjustment to avoid doing so, it results in his releasing the ball too early, causing it to stay high in the zone.
“He’s just caught in between,” Honeycutt said. “It’s just getting the feel back. It’s a good pitch for him. He didn’t lose that thing overnight.”
Saito said he didn’t know if his age was a factor but added that even if it was, there was no use in thinking about it.
The facts show that he has already blown half as many saves as he did all of last year, the latest setback coming Friday when he surrendered a one-run lead in the ninth inning against Colorado and forced the Dodgers to play 13 innings to earn a victory. (A Japanese reporter apologized to the American journalists in the Dodger Stadium press box when the game went into extra innings.) His other blown save came on April 14, when he gave up a three-run home run to Nate McLouth that resulted in a 6-4 loss to Pittsburgh.
“The only thing you can do is keep sending him out there,” Torre said.
When the Dodgers were carrying only 11 pitchers, Torre couldn’t afford to send Saito and setup man Jonathan Broxton to the mound on a regular basis. The limited options in the bullpen forced the manager to save them for days when the Dodgers had a narrow lead in the late innings.
But the promotion of right-hander Cory Wade from double-A Jacksonville on Thursday added an extra arm that should give Torre more flexibility. Honeycutt said Saito and Broxton no longer should have to go more than four days without pitching in a game.
“What’s unfortunate,” Saito said, “is that I came out of spring training feeling sharp. I feel like I’m back to square one now. I guess this is my challenge for this season.”
Right-hander Yhency Brazoban, who was in Jacksonville to build arm strength, was promoted to triple-A Las Vegas.