Rintaro Sasaki, Hanamaki-Higashi
On March 9, soon after the winter ban was lifted, Iwate’s Hanamaki-Higashi faced Osaka’s Rimousha at a field in Ibaraki City, Osaka Prefecture. Rintaro Sasaki, a new sophomore slugger attracting a lot of attention, hit an oversized homerun, far exceeding the longest distance recorded by T-Okada, who plays for the Orix while at Rimushosho-sya. Estimated to be a 150-meter shot. He also hit an arch to left-center field in a game against Ryukoku University Heian on March 14. He has hit 56 home runs in his high school career.
He had surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome last December, which kept him out of the game for about three months, but now that the 94th Senbatsu tournament, his first at Koshien, is about to begin, he is finally ready for mass production.
He has the power and mating ability to catch loose balls with a single swing, and it is hard to believe that he is a sophomore. However, he has yet to face a super high school pitcher who would be a high draft pick, and his ability to handle a straight ball to the chest at over 140 km/h is still unknown. In a practice game against Kobe Kokusai University, he was only able to get 3 hits (3 strikeouts) against a good pitcher.
The team they will face in the first round, City Wakayama, has a strong arm named Tsubasa Yoneda. A year ago, when I visited the school to cover Kenta Koenen, who was drafted first overall by Yokohama DeNA, I was standing beside Koenen and saw that he was as strong as Koenen. (I confess that I mistook him for Koen when I first saw him from a distance.) A year has passed since then, and his max is now 149 km. The true value of the monster will be tested in a head-to-head match with Yoneda. Sasaki had this to say last fall.
There are still a lot of things I need to work on, such as developing more power in my swing and dealing with breaking pitches. （I would like to stand on the national stage with the encouragement of Shohei (Otani) and Yusei (Kikuchi), who are seniors at the same school, and with the feeling that I can’t lose.
Yugo Maeda, Toin Osaka
The de facto ace of Osaka Toin, the heavy favorite to win the championship, is also a rising sophomore, and his name is Yugo Maeda. Last fall, coach Koichi Nishitani placed the utmost trust in Maeda, entrusting him to start only in important games. He throws white pitches at an up-tempo pace and quickly drives batters away, and his straight ball in the mid-140s is still growing, and his change-up is so magical that catcher Shion Matsuo described it as “stopping suddenly in the batter’s hands. He wears a hat with the words “Bark” and “Dynamo” written on it, and on the mound he throws white pitches with a sharp look in his eyes like a monk in ascetic training.
I entered the school with the determination to be the ace from the first year,” he said. When pitching, I am conscious of setting up a one-ball, two-strike count, because if I can drive the batter in with three pitches, the pitcher has the advantage. I don’t want to pitch with a breaking ball; I want to push hard.
He also shows off his extraordinary batting sense, and in the Kinki Tournament against Tenri, he hit a game-winning three-run shot. Manager Nishitani said of Maeda, “We have carefully and systematically nurtured him. I want him to grow up big.
The third-year students also include a strong right-handed pitcher, and from what I have seen of Osaka Toin over the past 10 years, I would not be surprised if he is called the No. 1 pitcher in the school’s history by the time he graduates. Osaka Toin, Hanamaki-Higashi, and Meishu Hitachi (Ibaraki), the champion of the Kanto tournament, are in the same block, and it is highly likely that the winning school will go on to win the championship.
Kyoshiro Sakura, Kyushu International Univ.
And the player who hit a home run off Maeda in the Jingu Tournament last fall was Kyojiro Sakura of Kyushu International University (Fukuoka). 182 cm, 104 kg, he has a presence that compares favorably with Sasaki, who is 183 cm, 117 kg. His form, in which he lowers his center of gravity and raises his bat high, is said to be based on that of Tomoya Mori (Saitama Seibu), but to this writer it looks more like the dragonfly stance of the Satsuma Jigen-ryu, a sword art from Kagoshima Prefecture. Sakura confided in me about his task before the Sembatsu tournament.
Of course I need to improve my long-hitting ability, but I think it is important to become more competitive. Sasaki is a better hitter than me. （I want to concentrate on my own batting and not be too conscious (of rivals).”
Koryo Keita Manabe
A left-handed slugger like Sasaki and Sakura, Toshi Manabe, the No. 3 hitter for Hiroryo (Hiroshima), shares a defensive position with Sasaki and Sakura at first base. Known as “Bonds” by his peers, the sophomore swings a sharp Japanese sword rather than a stout sword like Sasaki and Sakura, and bounces white balls back toward the right fielders. He also has superior technique in handling tough inside pitches, and he has fewer holes in his game than his two classmates. In addition, compared to the two players who currently can only play first base, Manabe, who is a sprinter, has the legs to play the outfield as well. His ability to play more than one position will appeal to scouts.
Players to watch in the third grade
We spoke with him after a practice game on March 13.
Kazuo Ohno, Oshima
I like the name. I like the name because it makes everyone care about me. I have been in good shape since I came to Osaka. First of all, I want to win one game and play against many national-level schools.
He pitched the Kagoshima Tournament last fall by himself, and in the Kyushu Tournament, he pitched a total of 19 innings with 28 strikeouts in the first game against Oita Maizuru, which had to be replayed after 10 extra innings due to torrential rain. He also pitched a complete game in the quarterfinals against Konan. Although he did not pitch in the semifinals or the final because of the 500-pitch limit in a week, his toughness is another selling point of his left arm. His fastball has a max velocity of 146 km. His pitching form is very similar to that of Rakuten’s guardian god, Hiroki Matsui. His vertical slider is also reminiscent of Matsui’s in high school.
If he can put on a strikeout show similar to Matsui’s 22 strikeouts in one game at Koshien in the summer of 2012, he will be a giant-killer in the fierce competition against Toin Osaka.
Will the second-year players make a splash? Or will the third-year players show their mettle? The battle of the generations is another highlight of this year’s Senbatsu.
From the April 1-8, 2022 issue of FRIDAY
Interview and text： Yuji Yanagawa
PHOTO： Takaki Matsuhashi (Sasaki) Kyodo News (Manabe)