Igarashi determined to prove he belongs
After frustrating first season in America, Mets reliever focused
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- The sights and sounds of Buffalo, N.Y., were not what Ryota Igarashi envisioned when he first flew to the United States last year, a guaranteed two-year contract in his pocket. But Buffalo was nonetheless where Igarashi spent much of his summer, where his frustration grew, where he learned to cope.
"When things were tough, sometimes I would secretly throw," Igarashi said through his interpreter. "I even put a hole in the tarp in the bullpen one day."
"He was throwing so many," Triple-A pitching coach Ricky Bones recalled, laughing.
For the damage, Igarashi received a nominal fine -- something he, like Bones, can joke about now. But don't underestimate the extent of the issue.
2010 Spring Training - Major League Baseball
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Though pitching coach Dan Warthen instructed Igarashi upon his arrival to keep his workout routine intact, Igarashi -- in an effort to assimilate to the culture -- cut back on his throwing program. It proved to be a mistake. Struggling to adapt to the stateside model of pitching, Igarashi went from racking up sizeable Spring Training pitch counts to taking regular days off during the week.
"He was told from the first day to throw exactly the way he did in Japan," Warthen said. "He was encouraged to not change any of his routine, to do whatever he wanted."
But Igarashi did change.
"As much as possible, I wanted to get used to the environment here," he said.
Relying more on his fastball and less on his curveball, Igarashi also Americanized his pitching style -- with poor results. Straining his left hamstring in April and landing on the disabled list, the former Central League closer rehabbed in Port St. Lucie before spending a chunk of the summer in Buffalo. When he returned to Flushing he was hardly the same, posting an 11.37 ERA in his first 15 games back with the Mets.
Concerned about their $3 million investment, the club shipped Igarashi back to the Minors to work out the kinks, which he never quite did. Returning to the Mets in August, Igarashi posted a 5.73 ERA in 12 appearances down the stretch.
"Psychologically, it was difficult," he said. "But the most difficult part about it was the fact that I wasn't getting good results."
By the time winter rolled around, Igarashi was idling on the 40-man roster, hindering new general manager Sandy Alderson's flexibility. Knowing that no team would risk assuming the $1.75 million left on Igarashi's contract, Alderson designated him for assignment, later outrighting him to Triple-A Buffalo and all but sealing his Opening Day fate.
"After the results last year, there's nothing I could have done about it," Igarashi said. "Of course there was a little shock. But I had to accept it."
Because that transaction removed him from the roster, Igarashi now faces a notable disadvantage in his attempt to make the team. Unlike fellow right-handers Pedro Beato (a Rule 5 pick) and Manny Acosta (who is out of options), Igarashi can now be optioned to the Minors without penalty -- by far the most likely outcome. The door to Queens is always open, of course (especially for those who throw in the 90s), and a strong performance in Triple-A could put Igarashi in line for a return to the Majors. But without success at Buffalo, he could also become just the latest cautionary tale of the inaccuracies of overseas scouting.
The Mets are hoping that won't be the case.
Upon Igarashi's arrival to camp last month, Warthen and manager Terry Collins reiterated that the right-hander is welcome to throw as much as he wants -- as often as every day if that's what makes him most comfortable. To date, Igarashi has ignored the advice -- in Warthen's estimation, he is throwing even less than he did last spring. But Igarashi has nonetheless begun to find more success, striking out the side in a perfect seventh inning Monday against the Tigers. And he intends to begin pitching more frequently in the weeks ahead.
Now it's simply a matter of results. Even if he does not return to the Mets this season, Igarashi, who will turn 32 this year, is not quite ready to go back to Japan. To that end, he would like to remain in New York, but is willing to sign a new contract elsewhere if he must.
"Me playing baseball is the most important thing," he said. "If I can go to a place where I'm needed and I'm appreciated and where I can be used, I would be very happy."
He'll do anything to avoid continued frustration, in fact -- anything to avoid putting another hole in another bullpen tarp. According to Mike Peters, the interpreter who chronicled Igarashi's rookie season through photographs, that gash in Buffalo's bullpen was never fixed.
The Mets can only hope that the pitcher who made it was.