Hard-throwing Japanese high school pitcher Roki Sasaki, who is being heavily scouted by major league clubs, stayed on the bench to avoid injury as his team was eliminated from contention for a prestigious national title on Thursday.
Sasaki, who threw a pitch at 160 kilometers (99.4 miles) per hour on Sunday in the fourth round of Iwate Prefecture's summer tournament and was clocked at 163 kph (101.3 mph) in April, did not pitch in the prefectural final, Ofunato High School's 12-2 loss to Hanamaki Higashi High School.
(Roki Sasaki responds to reporters after his team was eliminated in Iwate Prefecture's summer tournament.)
"It was the manager's decision, so I don't think it can be helped," Sasaki said. "It's only natural for those involved in high school ball to want to play. I wanted to pitch."
Hanamaki Higashi, where Los Angeles Angels two-way star Shohei Ohtani and Seattle Mariners pitcher Yusei Kikuchi both pitched, will now represent Iwate at the historic Koshien Stadium in Japan's most prestigious sports tournament, high school baseball's summer national championship.
After throwing 194 pitches on Sunday, Sasaki threw another 129 in Ofunato's semifinal victory on Wednesday. Sasaki's absence in the final was likely a disappointment to fans accustomed to high school ace pitchers taking the mound on consecutive days with little regard to the risk of injury.
However, Sasaki's manager, Yohei Kokubo, said the decision to rest his ace was to keep the pitcher healthy, a sentiment that has been gaining traction in Japan over the past year.
"He may have been fit to throw today, but it was my decision," Kokubo told reporters after the game. "The reason was to prevent injury."
Kokubo, who also held the youngster out of Monday's quarterfinal game, was asked whether winning was less important than Sasaki's future.
"That's absolutely not the case," Kokubo said. "Our goal is to win, regardless of whether Sasaki pitches or not."
The move was another indicator that change is afoot in the tradition-bound world of Japanese high school baseball. In April, the National High School Baseball Federation called on a panel to investigate safety measures for pitchers at national tournaments. In September the panel will look into mandated pitch limits and rest days.
The national federation, which oversees the prestigious summer competition, took that step after it was backed into a corner by a regional federation's reforms. In December, Niigata Prefecture's federation announced pitch limits for its spring tournament, a move condemned by the national federation but praised by the head of the Japan Sports Agency in February.
"It was a courageous decision," said Nobuhiro Togashi, who heads Niigata's federation and sits on the panel of experts investigating pitching safety reform.
"The player himself may well have wanted to play, but it was a decision that said Koshien is not everything. The Sasaki case will no doubt be discussed on the panel."
The Nippon Ham Fighters, who developed Ohtani, have declared that the right-handed Sasaki will be their first pick in Nippon Professional Baseball's amateur draft this autumn.
A source with one major league club told Kyodo News this spring it had hoped to sign Sasaki at the end of this year. However, that would have required the pitcher to drop out of the summer tournament, and the American team was told the youngster was unwilling to do so.