Angels’ Hisanori Takahashi settles in while keeping a worried eye on homeland
Reporting from Tempe, Ariz. — He is a Charles Dickens quote come to life, this being a spring of hope and a winter of despair for Angels reliever Hisanori Takahashi.
While his countrymen in Japan are reeling from a devastating earthquake and tsunami, the veteran left-hander has enjoyed the relative tranquility of Arizona, a dichotomy that has left Takahashi with survivor’s guilt.
“Fortunately, I am a survivor, but it hurts, of course,” Takahashi, 36, said through his interpreter and personal trainer, Yoichi Terada. “It has definitely been difficult to focus on baseball.
“Seeing all the [television] footage, you get a little numb, but it’s a real thing. I have to keep my eye on the tragedy, but I also have to play baseball here.”
Takahashi, whose family members and friends survived the disaster, has allowed only six hits while striking out 10 and not giving up a walk or a run in 11 innings over six exhibition games.
Armed with a vast repertoire and the versatility to pitch in short or long relief, Takahashi could be to the Angels what Darren Oliver was from 2007 to 2009, when the veteran lefty went 15-3 with a 3.10 earned-run average.
“You hate to put a tag on what a guy can be, but if he does what D.O. did for us he’s going to fill a big role,” Manager Mike Scioscia said. “Darren started a game for us. He pitched early. He pitched late.”
Takahashi, who signed a two-year, $8-million deal in December, might actually be more versatile than Oliver, who left Anaheim after 2009 for the Texas Rangers.
A starter for his entire 10-year career in Japan, Takahashi opened 2010 in the New York Mets’ bullpen, serving as a long reliever, short reliever and left-handed specialist.
He moved into the rotation in late May and remained there through the end of July, making 12 starts.
Takahashi then returned to the bullpen, and in mid-August he replaced the injured Francisco Rodriguez as the Mets’ closer for the remainder of the season.
The sum of his efforts: a 10-6 record, 3.61 ERA and eight saves in 53 games, with no home runs allowed to a left-handed batter.
“Actually, I was a little surprised with my ability to adjust to situations,” Takahashi said. “I was a starter in Japan for 10 years, and I didn’t know I could adjust that well to the bullpen.”
Like many Japanese pitchers, Takahashi has an unorthodox delivery with not one but two hitches, the first when he brings his hands overhead and the second during his leg kick.
His fastball is in the 89-mph range, and he mixes that with a curve, slider, cut-fastball, two-seam fastball and changeup.
He might also have a trick pitch. Mets right-hander R.A. Dickey taught him the knuckleball last season.
“I have some more pitches, but I can’t tell you what they are,” Takahashi said with a grin. “I try to keep the hitters off-balance with every pitch.”
He might need to invent a new pitch to use against Oakland designated hitter Hideki Matsui, who played in Anaheim last season.
A Yomiuri Giants teammate of Matsui’s for three years in Japan, Takahashi has faced Matsui eight times, all in exhibition games.
“He is five for eight against me with four home runs,” Takahashi said.
“That’s OK,” Scioscia said, noting the Angels’ 19 games against the A’s this season. “He’ll get another crack at him.”
With left-handed reliever Scott Downs headed for the disabled list because of a broken bone in his left big toe, Takahashi will be the only left-hander in the bullpen to open the season.
The Angels also signed Takahashi as insurance in case left-hander Scott Kazmir, who went 9-15 with a 5.94 ERA, continues to struggle.
“We’re seeing command of four pitches and a guy who hopefully will be very effective in a variety of roles,” Scioscia said of Takahashi. “He has pitches that can be effective against right-handed and left-handed hitters. He has a terrific repertoire.”
Takahashi knew little of the Angels when he signed with them.
“I knew their uniform is red; they are the red team,” he said upon arriving in camp in February. “And I knew Matsui-san was there. That’s about it.”
He has since gotten comfortable enough with his new teammates — “Everyone on the team is quite nice,” he said — to organize a fundraising effort to aid earthquake and tsunami victims.
Scioscia announced during a team meeting last weekend that Takahashi would be collecting donations.
He will then make a lump-sum donation to relief efforts through the Power Nippon Project, a website that a number of Japanese athletes, television and media personalities set up as part of an effort to help reconstruct hard-hit areas.
“I have to do something for them,” Takahashi said. “I send my condolences to all the people in Japan and hope things get better soon. We need some kind of good news from there.”
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