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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

A steep learning curve and a steeper forkball for Mets rookie

Kodai Senga was solid in his first start for the Mets. He allowed one run on three hits over five and one-thirds innings, striking out eight and walking three.

By James Wagner

At 2 p.m. Eastern time Sunday, Kodai Senga threw the first pitch of his major league career. It was a 99 mph fastball that dropped out of the strike zone. What would unfold over the next several innings of the New York Mets’ 5-1 win over the Miami Marlins exemplified both the adjustment period Senga faces in Major League Baseball and his tantalizing potential.

As they worked to rebuild their starting pitching rotation over the winter, the Mets committed $188 million to three pitchers: three-time Cy Young Award-winner Justin Verlander, veteran left-hander José Quintana and Senga, who had spent the previous 11 seasons with the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball. The longest of those contracts went to Senga, a 30-year-old right-hander, who signed for $75 million over five years.

Senga, though, will face the steepest learning curve of the bunch since this is all new to him. He won multiple Japan Series titles while starring for the Hawks, dominated hitters in the 2017 World Baseball Classic and earned a gold medal with Japan in the Summer Olympics in 2021. But MLB features most of the best talent in the world, a larger baseball that doesn’t feature the tack Japanese pitchers are accustomed to, and a more frequent pitching schedule.

Senga more than passed his first test. He allowed one run over 5 1/3 innings and struck out eight, all with his trademark forkball, a pitch that drops — or disappears — so quickly as it approaches the plate that is has been nicknamed the ghost fork. He overcame a rocky start to flash the abilities of a pitcher whom the Mets (3-1) hope will help them get far this season.

“Definitely a lot of nerves,” Senga said through interpreter Hiro Fujiwara after a victory that capped a season-opening series win. “My legs felt like a ghost. Once I got into that little bit of a pinch, I started to settle down and calm myself down.”

“Who’s not nervous on their debut?” added Mets outfielder Tommy Pham, who helped Senga secure his first win by smacking three hits, including a two-run home run in the fifth inning.

Senga’s first inning had it all. His first pitch showed the power of his right arm. Hoping to strike out the Marlins leadoff hitter Luis Arraez, Senga threw the forkball with two strikes. But Arraez, the American League batting champion last season with Minnesota, reached and flicked the diving pitch into the outfield for a single.

Senga then fell behind Jorge Soler, who dumped a 98 mph fastball into right field for a run-scoring double. Senga walked the next two batters, Jazz Chisholm Jr. and Avisaíl García, missing by trying to dot the edges. After a mound visit by Mets pitching coach Jeremy Hefner, Senga wriggled out of his own no-out, bases-loaded jam.

“He responded really well,” said Mets manager Buck Showalter, who admitted he had been curious to see Senga’s resiliency in such a moment.

For his first career strikeout, Senga fanned Yuli Gurriel on a forkball that caused Gurriel to flail so badly that the bat flew out of his hands and into foul territory past third base. Senga struck out Jesús Sánchez for the second out. And when right fielder Starling Marte raced over to catch a fly ball for the third out, Senga smacked his glove in delight and met his teammates near the dugout stairs to high-five them.

“It’s nasty,” Mets shortstop Francisco Lindor said of Senga’s signature pitch.

Added Pham, “A lot of swing and misses on that. I had a center field view and based off their swings, it was disgusting. The ball was just falling off the table.”

From the second inning on, Senga looked much more at ease. He got called for an automatic ball for a pitch clock violation but needed only 10 pitches to complete the frame, compared with 36 in the first. He again waited to congratulate his teammates after the final out, particularly the infielders who helped him out by turning an inning-ending double play. In a two-strikeout third frame, Senga needed only seven pitches.

“It’s pretty obvious his teammates are really drawn to him,” Showalter said. “They really wanted that for him today. He’s fit in really well, regardless of how he pitched or didn’t pitch. We’ve tried to adjust to him and he’s adjusted. Think about all the things that have been thrown at him, between the pitch clock and a lot of rule differences. I’m really proud of him.”

After Senga struck out Chisholm for the first out of the sixth inning, Showalter emerged from the dugout to pull Senga from the game after 88 pitches. Walking off the mound, Senga was met with a standing ovation from the Mets fans in attendance. In the dugout, Senga received congratulatory smacks from his teammates, and a comment from ace Max Scherzer that made him laugh.

Leading up to Sunday’s game, which started at 1:40 p.m. in Miami but 2:40 a.m. on Monday in Japan, Senga had joked that he would call a bunch of friends back home to wake them up if they weren’t tuning in. He didn’t end up doing so, Senga said after the game, because he said he had too much to do Sunday to prepare for the game.

Senga said he will keep the balls from his first pitch and his first strikeout as souvenirs.

“Very happy,” he said, “and very pleased to be here.”

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