Kuroda vs. Darvish: History in the makingA look back at the first six MLB matchups between Japanese-born pitchers
Two Japanese-born starting pitchers will do battle in a Major League Baseball game for just the seventh time tonight when the Yankees play the middle game of their three-game set against the Texas Rangers (8 p.m. on YES).
Texas starter Yu Darvish will be making just his fourth Major League start, but when Hiroki Kuroda takes the mound for the Bombers, he will be facing off against a countryman for the second time in his career; in 2010. Kuroda, then a Dodger, faced Hisanori Takahashi of the Mets.
Kuroda will also become the second Yankee to have the honor, as the Bombers were involved in the first-ever game that saw two Japanese hurlers go head-to-head. That was in 1999, when Hideki Irabu and the Yankees beat Makato “Mac” Suzuki and the Mariners, 10-1, at Yankees Stadium.
On Monday, Kuroda tried to downplay the significance of the matchup, telling the media through his translator that, “I try not to think about it. I don’t want to make it any bigger than it is… This is not a one-on-one game. It’s the Rangers against the Yankees.”
However, no matter how the 37-year-old may feel about it, his matchup with a man he called “one of the greatest pitchers that Japan has produced” is a big deal in the Land of the Rising Sun. Despite the fact that the game begins at 9 a.m. Wednesday Japanese time, there will be millions of eyes glued to television sets across the island nation.
Despite a three-year overlap in their Nippon Professional Baseball careers, Darvish and Kuroda never faced each other in Japan, and they missed being teammates in international competition as well; Kuroda pitched for Japan in the 2004 Olympics and in the 2006 World Baseball Classic, while Darvish represented his homeland in the 2008 Games and 2009 WBC.
With the two hurlers just hours away from a seventh date with history, here is a deeper look at the first six matchups between Japanese-born pitchers in Major League Baseball.
No. 1: May 7, 1999 at Yankee Stadium –Mac Suzuki (Mariners) vs. Hideki Irabu (Yankees)
As mentioned above, the Yankees were part of the first matchup of Japanese-born pitchers. That day in the Bronx, Hideki Irabu pitched seven innings of one-run ball to lead his team to victory, while Mac Suzuki of Seattle was roughed up for seven runs (four earned) in 5 1/3 IP, the big blow coming courtesy of Derek Jeter’s three-run home run in the fifth inning. The Yankees won 10-1, giving Irabu the first of his 11 victories that season.
No. 2: July 2, 2000 at Kauffman Stadium – Hideo Nomo (Tigers) vs. Mac Suzuki (Royals)
Suzuki got a second chance against a countryman one year later, but his opponent was arguably the most successful of all Japanese-born pitchers to play in MLB. Although he was in the midst of a tough season, Nomo lived up to the hype that day, holding the Royals to just three hits over seven innings. Suzuki was solid as well, allowing just two runs in his seven frames, but Luis Polonia’s leadoff home run would be all the offense Detroit would need that day. DH Juan Gonzalez added an RBI single in the sixth, and the Tigers took a 2-0 road victory.
No. 3: June 19, 2002 at Olympic Stadium – Mac Suzuki (Royals) vs. Tomo Ohka (Expos)
The third time was unfortunately not the charm for Suzuki, as he allowed three runs in the first inning (and four overall) en route to this 6-3 loss to the Expos. Montreal’s hurler, Ohka, allowed all three Royals runs in his seven strong innings, but a quartet of Expos relievers was able to get through the final two innings unscored upon to end the first inter-league battle of Japanese pitchers.
No. 4: May 9, 2007 at SkyDome – Daisuke Matsuzaka (Red Sox) vs. Tomo Ohka (Blue Jays)
Five years after dueling Suzuki, Ohka had moved back to the American League and was set to face off against recent import Daisuke Matsuzaka, who was making just his seventh Major League start. Dice-K was brilliant, allowing just one run in seven innings, that coming on a Lyle Overbay home run. Ohka, however, was not so lucky, as he struggled with his control, allowing three runs on six hits and five walks in just 4 2/3 IP. The Sox also teed off on the Blue Jays bullpen, scoring six runs off three relievers, but the Jays got two back in the ninth off Joel Piniero to cut the final to a 9-3 Boston victory.
No. 5: June 19, 2009 at Fenway Park – Kenshin Kawakami (Braves) vs. Daisuke Matsuzaka (Red Sox)
Matsuzaka wasn’t as lucky in his second start against a countryman two years later, however. Kenshin Kawakami threw six innings of two-run ball for the Braves, but Dice-K lasted just four innings on the other side, allowing six runs on eight hits (five of which were for extra bases) in Boston’s 8-2 loss to Atlanta. There may have been good reason, though, as Matsuzaka went on the disabled list with shoulder weakness; he had been on the DL earlier that season with a shoulder strain, and this stint cost him the next three months.
No. 6: July 22, 2010 at Dodger Stadium – Hisanori Takahashi (Mets) vs. Hiroki Kuroda (Dodgers)
As mentioned above, Tuesday’s start will be Kuroda’s second against a countryman – and he’ll be looking to go 2-0 in those starts. He was brilliant in the first one, allowing just five hits and one walk in eight shutout innings en route to the victory. Takahashi pitched well himself, giving up two runs on three hits over seven strong frames, but Matt Kemp’s two RBI were enough for the Dodgers to claim a 2-0 victory.
Follow Lou DiPietro on Twitter: @LouDiPietroYES