Carter Stewart Jr. begins his sixth season in Japan when the SoftBank Hawks' spring training starts Feb. 1, and appears poised for a breakthrough, a light at the end of what has been a surprisingly long 4-1/2 year tunnel as America's first marquee amateur to turn pro in Japan.
While the big news in 2023 was Stewart's first win in the Japanese major leagues, the image of him harnessing his command and feel for his pitches was striking.
Stewart was chosen to start the Hawks' 2023 playoff opener, but took the loss. He now chalks up the experience as one more lesson learned on his journey here that started in 2019 a year after he was the eighth overall pick in Major League Baseball's amateur draft.
The high hopes of a rapid rise for Stewart ran smack into the reality of SoftBank's lack of experience with overseas amateurs as well as his own difficulties with being away from home, and adapting to unfamiliar challenges in training.
"A little bit at times it felt like, 'You're an American, you should be ready immediately. You only need a year or two,'" Stewart told Kyodo News in a recent online interview. "I'm like, 'Guys I don't know what to do. I don't know what I'm doing. I barely know how to throw a baseball, let alone know how to train and eat and stay healthy.'"
Pitching against amateurs and independent minor leaguers for the Hawks' third team in 2019 and for the Hawks' Western League farm club the following year proved a challenge.
"It's a little different thing when I'm throwing against 16- and 17-year-olds in high school and a year later in juco (junior college) I'm starting against 19-year-olds," he said. "It (Japan) was definitely another level, and it takes you a lot longer than you realize to get adjusted and get into that level."
His first WL season saw him go 3-7 with a 4.16 ERA. Feeling a little overwhelmed by the effort needed amid the COVID pandemic, Stewart said he fell into a trap that compounded the isolation he felt.
"Sometimes you get into this lull, just routine, 'I'm not playing baseball, so let me just turn my brain off and not do anything for the rest of the day,'" Stewart said. "I wish I'd spent just an hour or two hours a week calling my family just to say, 'Hey what's up?'"
"It's like dang, I'll go two and a half weeks and I'll completely feel that I hadn't talked to anyone. That can really affect you as a person."
The first step to a solution was realizing a problem existed, Stewart said. In 2021, he took a big step forward in the minors, going 6-1 with a 1.84 ERA, and got his first major league action.
"When you're 19 or 20, you don't want to talk to your parents, you want to be on your own, you want to go do whatever you want to do, but that's not the right answer. You don't want to just cut the most important people out of your life," Stewart said.
"I have learned, (but it took) a little longer than I wanted. And once I did it, once I was happier off the field, I felt it increased my mood on the field. It helped me."
Asked what advice he would give to a young player from overseas turning pro here, Stewart said he cautions the young Dominican amateurs SoftBank signed in 2021 not to dive in to the deep end when it comes to the physical training Japanese players their age are accustomed to.
"Make sure you stay healthy," Stewart said. "Don't ever try to push yourself to a place where you feel like you might get hurt."
"Because I remember when I did that, I got hurt," he said. "It's not like you might get hurt. Ninety percent of the time you're going to come out of it with something wrong."
That painful lesson behind him, Stewart began putting in impressive games for the big club in 2023, the big heavy curve that once captivated Major League Baseball scouts on full display with a live fastball and a nasty splitter he gradually gained confidence in.
Stewart went 3-6 in 14 games with a 3.38 ERA during the regular season, but was unable to help the Hawks reach the final stage of the Pacific League playoffs.
"I wish I had a better start," he said of his postseason debut. "I got a lot of experience from it...how much more intense the playoffs are, especially in a hostile environment like Chiba. It was loud. It was crazy loud in there."
"I want to go again next year and be the Game 1 (playoff) starter again and if have that experience going into it."
"There was a significant improvement (from 2022). It's not where I want it to be, but you've got to take your steps forward."