Friday, June 25, 2004

Shingo Shreds Coco Crisp with a 66 mph Curveball

Takatsu could be Sox' savior this season

By GREG COUCH


Sooner or later, it's going to happen. Shingomania is going to kick in. Believe me. Shingo Takatsu, the Sox' closer, is a superhero back home in Japan. In Chicago? Not so much.

''The security guy at my apartment knows who I am,'' he said through an interpreter.

So there's that. And recently, he was recognized by a stranger for the first time. Takatsu and his interpreter, Hiroshi Abei, went to the driver's-license place in Schaumburg, and the woman behind the counter said, ''Shingo Takatsu. You're the guy from the White Sox.''

Yes, yes. He said.

''We're Cubs fans,'' she said.

''And then they treated me cold after that,'' he said Wednesday, telling the story.

He scored 22 points out of 100 on the test, which was written in English. Which he doesn't understand. He tried to ask Abei what the questions meant, but the Cubs fans/driver's-license people told him he couldn't talk to anyone during the test. So he guessed. Imagine how silly he must have felt just standing there with his pencil, filling in bubbles randomly not even knowing what the questions being thrown at him were.

Cleveland's Coco Crisp surely knows that feeling. He had it in the 10th inning Tuesday night against Takatsu. In typical modern-day American closer style, Takatsu throws blazing fastballs and curveballs and ...

Ha! I lob a Wiffle ball underhanded to my 5-year-old harder than Takatsu throws. He struck out Crisp on a 66 mph curveball. Crisp was so far ahead on the swing that he could have pulled the bat back and swung again before the ball got to the catcher. In fact, Takatsu released the ball, I got up for a Coke, got back to my seat and saw the final 10 feet of the pitch.

This is exactly what the Sox needed. Sox fans haven't noticed yet because if they don't see something to complain about then they're not breathing. But Takatsu is saving this season. We want to know when general manager Ken Williams is going to get another starting pitcher, and whether Magglio Ordonez is going to come back from knee surgery or if he's going to be traded, and whether manager Ozzie Guillen really does know what he's doing.

But you know what? The Sox are only two games behind Minnesota. What might have been the biggest issue on this team, the closer job, went from Billy Koch to Damaso Marte and back to Koch, and for some reason Guillen was awfully slow in giving Takatsu a chance.

Finally, he got it. He gave up a hit Tuesday night, breaking a string of 29 straight batters he had retired. His ERA is 1.00. Hitters are batting .133 against him.

So what took Guillen so long?

''Shingo was even having trouble throwing in the bullpen with nobody hitting during spring training,'' Guillen said. ''Right now, he can be one of the best guys we have.''

Just a theory, but maybe Guillen was afraid to give Takatsu a chance because of his 86 mph fastball. Just a theory, but when Takatsu had his big major-league tryout in front of scouts from more than 20 teams, maybe the Sox got him because a lot of teams left without making an offer. I mean, give Williams credit for taking a chance on a guy, but if he were so desired, would he have come so cheap?

We judge our pitchers today based on speed guns, and Takatsu barely registers. Football players are judged on bench press and 40-yard dash, and you really don't do those things in a football game.

Takatsu, who's 35, is the all-time saves leader in Japan with 260. And he got every last one of those by throwing lollipops.

Where do you find the best hitters? Japan or here?

''It's not about which one is better,'' he said. ''But Japanese baseball is about team play. They try to produce runs. They bunt, or hit the opposite way, moving runners along. In American baseball, the lineup from one to nine all try for home runs. They all can produce home runs.''

This is fun. Watching Takatsu, slowballing sidearmed against today's muscle-bound, maybe-steroid-induced players. He is playing right into the power mind-set of our American sports system, toying with it, laughing at it.

He floats those pitches up there, and these big guys see them, salivate and swing harder and harder and can't hit it.

Against Crisp, Takatsu's pitch speeds went like this: 89, 89, 87, 89, 88, 65 and then 66. It's a 24 mph difference, and he throws them where he wants. He hasn't given up a run in his last 22 games, covering 24 innings.

That doesn't mean he's perfect. One day he was struggling, and Guillen walked out to the mound to talk to him. A problem: Guillen doesn't speak Japanese and Takatsu doesn't speak Spanish or much English.

What could you two have been talking about?

''He doesn't care what the hell I'm saying, and I don't care what the hell he's saying,'' Guillen said. "I'm just yelling, 'Throw strikes. Throw strikes. Throw strikes.'''

And then Guillen walks back, and Takatsu throws strikes.

So we're going to learn about Takatsu, and he's going to learn about us. He eats in one of a handful of Japanese restaurants every day and has a wife back home in Japan. He doesn't know much about Sox history and can only name one player on the Cubs.

Sammy Sosa. It's going to be interesting watching Sosa's big swings against Takatsu's flutters.

Don't be surprised if Sosa swings and misses three times on the same pitch.

Catch up on White Sox Baseball with the Chicago Sun-Times

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