The Yankees look to rebound from a disappointing Opening Day tonight against the Orioles and veteran Japanese right-hander Koji Uehara. Uehara is making his major league debut tonight, but he already has some history with the Yankees’ two Asian players. When Uehara joined the Yomiuri Giants as a 24-year-old rookie in 1999, Hideki Matsui was already established as the Giants hitting star. Matsui is just six months older than Uehara, and the two were teammates for four seasons and remain friends. Their time together climaxed in 2002, when Matsui won his third Central League MVP award, Uehara won his second Sawamura Award, and the Giants won their twentieth Japan Series championship. Matsui joined the Yankees the next year, and the Giants haven’t won a championship since.
In 2004, Uehara pitched for the Japanese Olympic team in Athens. When Japan faced Chinese Taipei, the starting pitchers were Uehara and Chien-Ming Wang, then a Yankee prospect who had just made his Triple-A debut. Uehara and Wang matched each other into the seventh. Uehara gave up a three-run home run to the Dodgers’ Chin-Feng Chen in the third. Wang blew the lead by allowing Japan to tie the game in the sixth. Ultimately, the game was decided by the bullpens as Japan won 4-3 with a run off the Rockies’ Tsao Chin-Hui in the bottom of the ninth. Current Dodger Hiroki Kuroda got the win.
Uehara also pitched for Japan in the 2006 World Baseball Classic and was the starting pitcher in Japan’s game against the USA. Derek Jeter went 1-for-3 in that game. Alex Rodriguez went 2-for-5. Johnny Damon struck out in a pinch-hit at-bat, I assume after Uehara came out of the game.
So, Uehara isn’t a complete unknown to the Yankees, at least not to Jeter and Matsui. The scouting report on the 34-year-old righty is that he’s a finesse pitcher with outstanding control. His fastball tops out in the low 90s, but he compliments it with a cutter, slider, splitter, and forkball. In his ten seasons with the Giants, he walked an incredibly low 1.20 men per nine innings and had an equally impressive 6.68 K/BB ratio. He has, however, suffered from some leg injuries and spent 2007 as the Giants’ closer in part to stay healthy. Last year, he made just 12 starts against 14 relief appearances and posted a 3.81 ERA in just 89 2/3 innings, though his peripherals remained outstanding.
The most famous walk Uehara issued came in his rookie season of 1999. Matsui and Venezuelan slugger Roberto Petagine were neck-and-neck in the Central League’s home-run race that year. With Matsui a home run behind the gaijin late in the season, Uehara was ordered by to intentionally walk Petagine in a game against Petagine’s Yakult Swallows. The Swallows had been walking Matsui all game, but Uehara wanted to pitch to Petagine and broke down in tears upon carrying out his orders. It was all for naught, as Petagine out-lasted Matsui, 44 homers to 42. In 2003, Petagine joined the Giants as Matsui’s replacement.
Getting back to tonight, while Uehara brings some interesting history to the mound, my eyes will be on Chein-Ming Wang, who is making his first regular season start since breaking his foot while running the bases in Houston on June 15 of last year. Wang had an inconsistent spring, posting a 4.15 ERA, a 1.34 WHIP, and most alarmingly, allowing three home runs (he allowed four in 15 starts last year). In his last start of the spring, in the first game ever played in the new Yankee Stadium, he gave up four runs in five innings and didn’t get a ground-ball out until the third inning. Wang’s foot is not my concern. What concerns me is the rust on his arm and his mechanics, as well as the fact that, when he hit the DL last year, his numbers revealed career-highs in ERA (4.07), walk-rate (3.3 BB/9), and WHIP (1.32). None of those figures is alarming, they were combined with a career-high strikeout rate (5.1 K/9), and Wang is no longer being relied on to be the Yankees’ ace, but after an eight-month layoff from mid-June to mid-February, he has something to prove this month.
The Yankee line-up is the same as Monday’s. The Orioles have moved Luke Scott to DH and replaced him in left field with Felix Pie, putting Ty Wigginton on the bench.
In other news, Dan Giese was claimed off waivers by the A’s.