The Saitama Seibu Lions continued their partnership with the Melbourne Aces of the ABL in Australia for the eighth consecutive season. This year's crew featured two pitchers entering with different stages in their careers in Hayato Takagi and Hiromasa Saito.
Takagi, 29, was the Lions' free agent compensation selection from the Yomiuri Giants after they signed Ryoma Nogami after the 2017 season. Both players nearly had the same upside in this swap, but Takagi had a rough 2018 at the ichi-gun level with only one quality start and being unable to find a role.
"In the Central League, they use a lot of [bunting] and more small ball," Takagi said from an interview in November. "With the Pacific League, the hitters swing harder. I have to throw harder than I was throwing in the Central League."
This trip was a chance for a redemption path for Takagi who is looking to crack either a rotation or bullpen role with the Lions ichi-gun in 2019. In six starts for the Aces, he had a productive stretch, going 3-1 with a 3.74 ERA which included a seven-inning complete game.
With Yusei Kikuchi going to the Seattle Mariners via the posting system, Takagi's window is open for a rotation spot in a mix with Ken Togame, Kona Takahashi and Makoto Aiuchi as well as first-round draft pick Wataru Matsumoto. He will also be reunited with former Giant Tetsuya Utsumi, who was taken as an free agnet compensation for the loss of Ginjiro Sumitani.
Saito, 23, got a brief taste of ichi-gun action in 2018, but didn't get his first call up until June and made only one spot start to end the regular season. He had one win as a reliever and was used as a swing man in middle relief, but couldn't stay up the entire year.
"Personally, I didn't do well in the first season for my professional career, but as a team, the Lions won the Pacific League Pennant, so that's the greatest moment of my professional career," Saito said.
In the six weeks with the Aces, Saito was one of several reliable arms in the bullpen which gave a boost to the team. In 11 games and 16.1 innings of work in relief, he didn't give up a single earned run and had a WHIP of 0.73, giving up only six hits, six walks and two hit batters. Saito also finished five of the games while recording four holds and even a save.
As the team's 2017 first round draft pick, he knows there are some expectations from both fans and the Lions themselves. He said he isn't worried about what his role will be with the team and that he will be ready for any challenge ahead.
"[I'm not concerned] on what role I have to do for the Lions," Saito said. "Whatever the team needs, I can do it."
Both Saito and Takagi enjoyed their trip to Australia bringing up how interesting the food and animal experiences were. They saw koala and kangaroo up close, as well as tasting Vegemite, which is something Takagi thought tasted awful.
While the Lions have been long gone from the Aces since 2019 began, they definitely made an impact in the standings as manager Jon Deeble got the best out of them. Melbourne is currently in a race to try and win the Southwest division and will likely have a playoff spot.
本日はこの動画🎬— メルボルン・エイシズ (@aces_japanese) December 23, 2018
高木選手「I want to stay! Thank you!!」
齊藤選手「Thank you! I love Australia!!」
Saito noted he wants to keep an ichi-gun job for the entire 2019 season in some capacity while both players hope to win another championship this year. After a successful business trip in Australia to boost the Aces and work on their game, everything resumes in February.
"Thank you very much for your support, please keep cheering us all over the world," Saito said.
Thank you very much to the Melbourne Aces, Steven Smith, interpreter Kobayashi-san and the Lions themselves for making this story possible. The full exclusive interview can be seen here. This interview took place in Adelaide during the second week of the ABL season.
Follow us on Twitter @GraveyardBall