A teen sensation, insane pitch counts, a nation's obsession: Yes, Japan's Summer Koshien is back

Jeff Passan
Yahoo! Sports

Four months later, Tomohiro Anraku is still pitching. This is not entirely surprising. The arm is a remarkably resilient machine. Over nine April days, in five games, as a 16-year-old, Anraku threw 772 pitches. It was as though Anraku and his coach were begging for his shoulder capsule to blow up or an elbow ligament to shear. Nothing did. No, the surprise came in the months after, when he started throwing again and the people who had come to gawk at Japan's newest teenage monster noticed something.

Anraku was throwing harder than ever. Just two weeks ago, his fastball was clocked at 98 mph. He had grown maybe an inch, to 6-foot-2, and added a few pounds through conditioning his legs, which he would need to survive this time. In the last of those five games in nine days, with his pitch count ticking toward the high 700s, the magic in his arm disappeared. He would not let that happen again.

At 10:30 a.m. Wednesday in Japan (9:30 p.m. ET Tuesday), Tomohiro Anraku will start for Saibi High School in a second-round game of Summer Koshien, the most important sporting event annually in Japan. To call it a tournament consisting of 49 high school baseball teams does not do it justice. The twice-a-year event, held during the spring and summer, combines the madness of March with the media coverage of the Super Bowl and the history of the World Series. It makes heroes out of kids whose belief that Koshien glory exceeds all and turns them into the tournament's willing martyrs.

The country will tune in as much out of curiosity as fascination, for a pitcher like Anraku – a kaibutsu, or monster – comes along but once a decade. Kaibutsu isn't just what you do. It is who you are. He is not just a boy who is willing to push his arm to and past its breaking point. By pitch No. 772, Anraku's fastball barely reached 80 mph. During the hundreds of pitches before that, Anraku struck a presence on the mound, not just towering over hitters but commanding the entire tournament, like a general.

A long tradition intertwines the military and Koshien, as if it not only breeds warriors but relishes in doing so. Should Anraku win his first game, he will pitch again Saturday or Sunday. Then Monday. And Wednesday. And finally Thursday. Five games. Nine days. Again. He will pitch every one of them, because that's what kids do at Koshien.

The man who could stop it is a 60-something named Masanori Joko. He is Anraku's coach. He heard the swell of criticism from the United States following Spring Koshien – of longtime agent Don Nomura telling Yahoo! Sports, "This is child abuse," and of doctors who have studied pitching injuries, savaging him for potentially ruining a million-dollar arm. Joko's response to the Japanese media in the weeks leading up to Summer Koshien has been fairly consistent.

He just hopes Anraku can be a little more efficient and keep his pitch counts down.



"It is a high school baseball player's ultimate dream," Junichi Tazawa said. He stood outside the Boston Red Sox's clubhouse about an hour before a recent game. Tazawa, in his fourth major league season, is one of baseball's top setup men and plays for the best team in the American League. And he still looks at Koshien wistfully, perhaps because he never got to play in it, or maybe because he's Japanese, and even those who know better cannot help themselves.

He heard about Tomohiro Anraku and his 772 pitches. Tazawa said it was amazing. Not amazing like he was incredulous. Amazing like what an achievement, even if they weren't close to the Koshien record held by a boy named Yuki Saito. Nicknamed The Handkerchief Prince because he used one to dab sweat during the 2006 Summer Koshien's sweltering heat, Saito twirled 948 pitches in one tournament.

"I think it's special in the sense of how they use the pitchers," Tazawa said. "Even in college, there is a starter, setup guy and a closer. In Koshien, one pitcher mostly throws the whole game. That adds to the special element."

Tazawa throws around these words – dream and amazing and special – and they play directly into the ethos of Koshien, how a 16- or 17-year-old boy can make history. Trying to reconcile this with the lessons taught Tazawa in the U.S. can prove tricky. Tazawa, 27, knows the research here that cautions teenagers to limit their starts to 95 pitches and rest at least three days between starts. The problem is, even those who don't pitch in Koshien like Tazawa still can end up with a blown-out elbow that necessitates Tommy John surgery.

"Living here in the States, I understand why they consider it crazy," Tazawa said. "But if you're in Japan, there is amazement toward the feat."

That's what it is: a feat, a series of five mountains climbed and descended, of fortitude not just mental but physical, of history and self amalgamating into something so much bigger. And all we can do is hope that Tomohiro Anraku is some sort of a freak, that his joints don't work like the rest of ours, that the stress and strain of doing this twice as a junior and presumably twice more next year does not eat away at his blessing. Because however little we truly know about the arm, this much is evident: It is practically criminal to throw a kid five times in nine days for 772 pitches, and to do it twice or three times or four goes far beyond paying homage to a culture and well into ignoring a child's welfare.

A few minutes after Tazawa re-entered the clubhouse, the door swung open again and out walked Red Sox closer Koji Uehara. He is one of the elders of Japanese baseball in the States and was joined by Red Sox translator C.J. Matsumoto. Uehara, 38, hadn't seen Anraku pitch. He wasn't sure he needed to. The cross-cultural comparison intrigued him even more than how much a teenager throws.

"Is there a rule here in place in the U.S. that you can't go back-to-back [days]?" Uehara asked, and the answer was complicated: Even if there isn't – different leagues vary – the stigma of overuse has so choked baseball coaches they're beginning to understand any misuse will result in public shamings and charges of skirting the responsibility to keep a young arm healthy. The only holdouts are coaches who sacrifice what's right for their own best interests. They should be fired. It's managerial malpractice cloaked in greed.



Adults exist for teenagers. No teenager – not the valedictorian, the screw-up, the jock, the princess, the math nerd, the extracurricular freak, the perfect SAT kid ... nobody – should be allowed to make a choice that could directly destroy his gift. Letting him do so goes against everything parents should do, which makes the case of Tomohiro Anraku all the worse. In about a year, a Japanese team is going to pay him silly money provided his arm has not rebelled.

"I want to prove this is the right way," he recently told ESPN the Magazine's Chris Jones. "I want to prove the Japanese way is the right way."

Anraku has taken this personally, and by throwing all these pitches and playing in all these games he is fighting back against what he sees more as an assault on the way of his game and his people than a concerted effort to help him remain healthy. Forget the strangers. Forget everyone. Hell, forget Major League Baseball, where all this shame emanates from. It's his arm, his body, his game, his country.

And now it's his tournament. The team that beat Anraku and Saibi 17-1 in the Spring Koshien finals, Urawa Gakuin, already has lost. In the qualifying games for Saibi, Anraku stayed in the 110-pitch range. He's throwing his off-speed pitches for more strikes. Maybe it's something. Perhaps at the end of the nine days he'll have breezed through teams. Saibi could lose and spare him.

"There are pitchers who started early and pitched a lot in high school who went on to have successful careers," Uehara noted. "I understand why there's a fuss about how many pitches are thrown in Koshien, but you can't ignore how some pitchers have stayed healthy."

Indeed, one of the great heroes of 2006 Koshien is now 24 years old. His name is Masahiro Tanaka. He faced Yuki Saito and lost after 742 pitches total. This year, for the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, Tanaka is 16-0 with a 1.20 ERA, with fewer than a baserunner per inning and 120 total strikeouts. His fastball tickles the mid-90s, and with a hard slider and splitter, too, he could find himself posted and primed to come to Major League Baseball.

The last two stars to go through that system were Daisuke Matsuzaka and Yu Darvish. Matsuzaka was a kaibutsu. He once threw a 17-inning, 250-pitch game at Koshien. More recently, he threw a 333-pitch bullpen session over 90 minutes. Because that is what monsters do. Meanwhile, Darvish's father monitored his workload, didn't let coaches abuse him, saved and salvaged him for the eventual point of this racket: professional success. He was the best pitcher in Japan, and now he's one of the best pitchers in the U.S. Five games of 14 or more strikeouts in the same season is territory for Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson, Nolan Ryan and Sam McDowell. Darvish is actually exceeding expectations.

Look at what he's doing, and look at what Matsuzaka is doing, and it's why even Tazawa, someone who has every reason to love Koshien, believes what Anraku has done and may do again is like a bullfight, entertaining and fulfilling but ultimately dangerous and cruel. "I have a feeling it is better off to have a limit and strengthen your arm," Tazawa said.

For now, that is no option. Tomohiro Anraku is throwing 98 mph. His arm is fresh. If Joko asks him for a 13-inning, 232-pitch complete game like last time, dammit he'll get one. This is Koshien, summer even more important than spring. Anraku's parents met here, and he wants this for them. He will not lose. He cannot.

The monster is back. Hear him roar. It sounds like a boy who knows no better.



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