LOS ANGELES – When he arrived in Vero Beach, Fla., for his first American spring training, red glove aglow in an entirely blue world, Takashi Saito allowed himself the slightest ambition.
He stood among the other minor-league invitees only 14 months ago. At 36, he had left behind a family in Japan, and a career of occasional prominence, to follow a curiosity born nearly a decade before.
"When I first started," he said Thursday night through a translator, "I had one goal. And that was to step on a major-league mound one time."
In the same spring, it was not unusual for him to throw to a minor-leaguer who'd only three years before become a catcher, himself having left behind the comforts of familiarity – third base – for a blind path to the major leagues.
Russell Martin prepared for what he supposed would be at least another season in the minors. Saito, 13 years older, was all but anonymous, lost in a bullpen of Eric Gagne, Danys Baez and Yhency Brazoban and in an organization of younger, flashier options.
A year later, they are the swing men for the Los Angeles Dodgers, Martin behind the plate, Saito at the back end of the bullpen. Surrounded mostly by veterans, holding rigorous positions, they turn the second-year adjustments slowly in their heads, all from careers apart, from 60 feet, 6 inches apart, three outs at a time.
"The positions they play are critical," Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti said. "And they both were put in situations last year that were difficult."
Saito was their fourth choice for the ninth inning, and then had merely to become the first regular and reliable closer since Gagne, one of the most popular figures in team history and one of the most effective closers in baseball history.
Martin was their second choice at catcher, and then caught 117 games, all after an early-May call-up, all after a mere 74 Triple-A at-bats.
"Those are not easy tasks," Colletti said. "I admire how they did it."
Saito had 24 saves and blew two. In his second season, he has six saves and an 0.93 ERA.
Martin hit .282 and became a dynamic, sturdy defensive catcher and game-caller. In his second season, he is batting .338 with 15 RBI from the sixth place in the order, just behind Luis Gonzalez.
Among Colletti's preference for veteran poise and reliability, they have been just that. Saito's dream of one big-league appearance has become 81. Martin's willingness to become a catcher could make him an All-Star.
"What I had thought in my mind and what actually happened, I'd have never thought of it," Saito said. "You know, in last year's situation, everything was unknown and I didn't really have time to step back and reflect. Everything happened so quickly. From the start this year, they wanted me to close, so I had a lot more time to think about my role on the team. From my end, I have to be able – with the rest of the staff – to still get hitters out."
Now, while they come from nations half-a-world apart and from opposite ends of their baseball careers, they meet many nights in the ninth inning, Saito leaning on 14 years in Japan's Central League and what he could gather in his rookie season, Martin on relentless energy and uncommon moxie in a catcher so young. Saito is so new at this he has yet to choose his entrance music. Martin has been earning big-league checks for less than a year.
"I don't know if it's come fast," Martin said. "But it is kind of weird. It was only a year ago I was in Las Vegas."
Catcher Dioner Navarro, the player the Dodgers had to have when they traded Shawn Green to the Arizona Diamondbacks, was injured, and then was passed by Martin, and then he was traded to Tampa Bay. Gagne, of course, was injured, as was Brazoban, and then Baez was passed by Saito. Gagne is in Texas, Baez in Baltimore, and Brazoban in the final month of recovery from Tommy John surgery.
So, the meeting of Saito and Martin was arranged by serendipity and opportunity, Martin on the way in and Saito on the way out.
"Takashi, he's been doing it for a long time," Martin said. "Nobody questioned the talent he had. They pretty much wondered if he had anything left. Turned out, he had a lot left."
However much there is, Dodgers manager Grady Little said, "We'll use until it's done."
The Dodgers are better for it, as it turned out. Saito has proven to be an unyielding thrower of strikes, from his deceptively quick fastball to one of the tightest, most reliable sliders in baseball.
"He puts his pitches on parts of the plate you can't do anything with," an American League scout said. "And he's one of the most aggressive pitchers in the game."
A small red banner hangs from Saito's locker. Japanese writing hangs between flames. The message, loosely: "One game. One fight."
In America, a game at a time. A step at a time. It is Saito's journey.
"It's actually just recently, from the end of spring training up until now, that I did think about the road I took and how it's changed," Saito said. "Obviously, it's been a big difference. … I know this year I'm more of a marked man than I was last year."
Probably, it's nice to have a little company.