Yoshinobu Yamamoto sizzles in Dodgers debut: ‘I don’t think it could’ve gone any better’

SURPRISE, Ariz. — The mystery surrounding the richest pitching contract in baseball history cleared up some Wednesday, starting with a 96 mph fastball from Yoshinobu Yamamoto.

When Texas Rangers star Marcus Semien stepped into the batter’s box Wednesday afternoon at Surprise Stadium, it marked something of an unveiling for the Los Angeles Dodgers’ new right-hander. This was the first glimpse of Yamamoto for the 7,714 in the building and those in the sport who didn’t see the three-time Sawamura Award winner dominate in Japan or watch him help lead his home country to World Baseball Classic glory last spring.

Even Shohei Ohtani, his fellow Japanese star and new Dodgers addition, made the 20-minute trek to ensure he could watch Yamamoto’s spring debut in person.

It was worth the trip. Yamamoto, who signed a 12-year, $325 million contract in the offseason, struck out three over a pair of brilliant scoreless innings. His fastball sat in the mid-90s. His curveball showed wicked movement. The splitter got ugly swings to strike out Nathaniel Lowe and Leody Taveras. Yamamoto even featured his cutter during the brief stint, all while appearing to keep the opposing Rangers lineup at bay with the unorthodox timing in his delivery.

“I don’t think it could’ve gone any better,” manager Dave Roberts said.

Yamamoto’s own self-evaluation was brief.

“For today,” he said through interpreter Yoshihiro Sonoda, “I’m kind of relieved.”

The relief gave way to a laugh as, after his final strikeout, he turned back toward the infield as if to ask for the ball, only to realize he had recorded the third out as Ohtani waved him back over to the dugout.

“I never thought he would come,” Yamamoto said of Ohtani’s presence.

The pitcher relayed that Ohtani’s evaluation of the debut was, “Eh, so-so.” Yet it was anything but. The question of how successful the Dodgers right-hander will be in his rookie stateside campaign won’t be answered with two shutout innings in February. But the performance showed flashes of what makes so many in the sport bullish on his chances.

Yamamoto made his dominance look as routine as his intricate training regimen that has been the talk of camp. The 25-year-old right-hander has thrived off efficiency, from his compact 5-foot-10 frame to his delivery to how he prepares. He emerged Wednesday from the tunnel behind home plate at 12:28 p.m., carrying a black Nike bag in hand that contained something of a toolbox for the right-hander; his methods have swapped out weights for miniature soccer balls, strength work for mobility and flexibility that allows him to flirt with triple digits on the mound and hurl long toss from the center-field fence to the chalk lines in left with ease.

His expertise is precision, as he repeated his delivery in the dugout during the top of the first inning while waiting to take the mound. Upon exiting the game, he repeated the routine, as if to commit the mechanics to muscle memory.

And, save for a wayward cutter to Taveras, seemingly every pitch Yamamoto threw on Wednesday hit its intended target. It’s the type of command that Dodgers general manager Brandon Gomes raved about this winter and that Roberts has routinely gushed over whenever given the opportunity.

“He can go glove side, he can go arm side, he can go down, he can go up,” Roberts said Wednesday, demonstrating with a hand the precision within his makeshift zone.

For Roberts, Yamamoto’s skills evoke a rare comparison. The manager said it reminds him of a young Zack Greinke who, at 25 years old with the Kansas City Royals, utilized that combination of velocity and fastball command to win a Cy Young Award.

“For a pitcher to be able to throw the fastball and all the different quadrants, it just opens everything else up,” Roberts said.

The curiosity that surrounds Yamamoto also brings with it expectations. The Dodgers are planning, and betting, that Yamamoto emerges and sticks as a frontline starter. They’re paying him that way, too.

“He’s been the best pitcher in Japan for quite some time,” Roberts said. “So him having to live up to expectations, he’s done that.”

So far, it appears that his transition — to a new league, a new baseball, new pitch clock, new schedule and with it a new language and culture — has been an easy one so far, save for the clouds and rain that accompanied his first days of camp and drew some confusion from what Yamamoto had heard about the Arizona sun. His weather concerns prompted several retorts from coaches and teammates, who told him to just wait. It was coming.

Baked in the sun on Wednesday, Yamamoto got what he was waiting for. So far, the Dodgers have, too.

“He’s acclimated incredibly fast,” assistant pitching coach Connor McGuiness said. “We just want him to continue to do what he’s doing. Because what he’s shown us … is pretty special.”

(Photo of Yoshinobu Yamamoto: Joe Camporeale / USA Today)

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