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Yoshinobu Yamamoto keeps rolling and adapting for Dodgers: ‘It’s special’

Yoshinobu Yamamoto of the Los Angeles Dodgers pitches in a Spring Training game against the Seattle Mariners in Glendale, Ariz., on Wednesday, March 13, 2024. As much as he still appears to be learning how to attack major league lineups and optimize his pitch mix, Yamamoto is finding success with the Dodgers. (Adam Riding/The New York Times)

By Fabian Ardaya / The Athletic

Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Yoshinobu Yamamoto had scaled the mountain often in Japan, but reaching 100 pitches this past Monday for the first time in MLB signaled another step forward.

Kevin Newman of the Arizona Diamondbacks bashed that 100th pitch, a slider, up the middle for a run-scoring single to end Yamamoto’s outing. It was not a picture-perfect ending to the feat, but it was also not enough to spoil the night, a 6-4 Dodgers victory at home.

The performance — two runs, eight strikeouts and one walk in 6 1/3 innings — represented what has become his new normal. After a disastrous debut in Seoul, South Korea, in which he allowed five runs in one inning, and an uneasy first few starts on U.S. soil, Yamamoto has reset expectations.

Manager Dave Roberts noticed it a few starts back. The Dodgers have wanted as little to change as possible for Yamamoto in his first season across the Pacific, from his once-a-week pitching schedule to attack plans and tweaks the club could make to his repertoire.

“There are definitely things that we feel like would help, but we feel that way about a lot of our guys,” Andrew Friedman, the team’s president of baseball operations, said of Yamamoto this month. “Other guys, we’re quicker to introduce it. With him, we’re just a little bit slower.”

They “didn’t even try to guess” how long it would take for the lightbulb to go off. Then Yamamoto got battered in Seoul, felt growing pains over the next few starts and got fed up.

“I think he just got tired of being mediocre,” Roberts said.

Yamamoto’s earned run average in nine starts since returning from Seoul is 2.38 (and 3.17 overall). He appears to have corrected the mechanical issue that threw his command out of whack this spring. As much as he still appears to be learning how to attack major league lineups and optimize his pitch mix, he is finding success. He has impressed even the organization that went out and committed $375 million (including posting fees) to add him to its roster this winter.

Still, the Dodgers are quick to remember that Yamamoto is 25, 2 months older than Gavin Stone, 8 months older than Bobby Miller and 15 months older than Emmet Sheehan. And yet he has performed.

“It’s been fascinating to watch him kind of handle all the extra pressure and everything that comes with it,” assistant pitching coach Connor McGuiness said recently. “To go out and do what he’s done — I think this is only the beginning of it, too. I think he’s going to keep getting better and better.”

Part of that has come with starting to tweak those dials a little. He has gradually reintegrated his sinker as a regular part of his arsenal, giving a slightly different look and shape from the four-seam fastball that has gotten crushed at points in Yamamoto’s first month and a half. He reintroduced that slider he occasionally threw in Japan, giving himself another weapon to throw against right-handed hitters.

He threw 11 sinkers and 10 sliders out of his 100 pitches Monday; the changes are not a reinvention but a diversification and a testament to Yamamoto’s ability to make even the bigger MLB baseball bend to his will.

That array of options made what is typically a challenge for a first-year player — facing an opposing team for a second time, now that it has gotten a look at the pitch mix — into “a little bit of an advantage for me,” Yamamoto said through an interpreter, Yoshihiro Sonoda.

He pitched Monday as if it was indeed an advantage, with the Diamondbacks pushing across a third-inning run on a two-out Joc Pederson single but struggling to gather much else in terms of momentum as the Dodgers took a five-run lead.

Monday was hardly Yamamoto’s most dominant performance this season. It was a brilliant one nonetheless, and it left him with a 5-1 record.

Growth on the mound has come from comfort in his new environment. He has delighted in demonstrating parts of his culture. In Minnesota, he gave Shohei Ohtani and Roberts bento boxes from a local restaurant. After a recent trip, players returned to the home clubhouse at Dodger Stadium to find a collection of Japanese snacks awaiting them in the center of the room. In turn, those around him have noted the progress of Yamamoto’s English.

Something the Dodgers and others across the sport had noticed early was an ability to adapt, evolve and use his variety of pitches to find a way to make it work.

“He was a different pitcher early on in his career in Japan and then evolved into a different one,” Friedman said. “The way his mind thinks about pitching, his ability to manipulate the ball, we were counting on that.”

Through 10 starts, Yamamoto has shown that. He has also shown he can weather the weight of expectations that have accompanied his contract. Huge 12-year contracts cannot be deemed an out-and-out win just a few months into Year 1. But the Dodgers have little reason to feel anything but encouraged with their young star.

“It feels like every time he goes out, everyone expects him to throw a complete-game shutout,” Dodgers’ first baseman Freddie Freeman said. “That’s a lot on him. So for him to go out there and do what he’s been doing these first two months, I think it’s special.”


Eastern Conference Finals

Thursday’s Game 2 (Boston leads series 1-0)

Indiana Pacers at Boston Celtics,

8 p.m. ET

Saturday’s Game 3

Boston Celtics at Indiana Pacers,

8:30 p.m. (ABC, ESPN Deportes)

Western Conference Finals

Friday’s Game 2 (Dallas leads series 1-0)

Dallas Mavericks at Minnesota

Timberwolves, 8:30 p.m. (TNT)

Sunday’s Game 3

Minnesota Timberwolves at Dallas

Mavericks, 8 p.m. (TNT)

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1 Comment

Wilson Rosie
Wilson Rosie
May 27

This passage highlights the continuous growth and development of Yoshinobu Yamamoto as he transitions from the Japanese professional league to the more challenging environment of MLB. connections game

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