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Tuesday, March 14, 2006 - Page updated at 12:35 AM

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World Baseball Classic: The lowdown on pitching

Special to The Seattle Times

ANAHEIM, Calif. — The right pant leg of Japanese pitcher Shunsuke Watanabe's white uniform was streaked in dirt from the top of the knee straight on down to the bottom. The front of his right cleat was solid brown in soil.

This happened to be in Tokyo last week against Korea in the World Baseball Classic's Asia Round, but it's the same look just one pitch into every game he starts. Watanabe is Japan's submarine-style, nearly underhanded throwing pitcher.

He goes so low in his stride that his right leg, from his kneecap to his shoetop, lays firmly in the dirt of the mound on every pitch, as if he were some kind of modern artist trying to beautify the field with imprints of his lower leg.

Watanabe's unique delivery will be on display again Wednesday, when he is expected to start against Korea, this time in Japan's third and final game of Round 2.

Team Japan likes to tout its technique and Watanabe, with his confounding arm angles, is a clear example of an athlete who has looked beyond power in mastering his craft.

"I used to think I could challenge hitters with my power," he says, laughing. "Then, I gradually began to appreciate that submarine-style pitching in and of itself is a craft that, if mastered properly, can be used to effectively get batters out.

"I discovered there's a skill in creating the illusion of speed and if you can do that, you can successfully defeat batters with your perceived speed. I learned to stop getting my thrill from the radar gun reading and enjoy making my pitches appear faster than they are to the batters. That still gives me the thrill of overpowering the batters."

Watanabe, 29, made this discovery three years ago, and had a breakout season in 2004, going 12-6 with a 3.59 earned-run average. He followed that up with a 15-4 record and 2.17 ERA last year, helping lead the Chiba Lotte Marines to an unlikely Japan League championship.

Make no mistake, though, Watanabe did not try the submarine style out of a mid-career desperation move. He's been throwing this way since 8th grade, when he says a coach suggested it to him because he was so limber. He's gradually perfected his craft and has impressed his manager the past two years, former Mets and Rangers skipper Bobby Valentine.

"He's an extremely talented athlete," Valentine says. "He has great balance. He's able to maintain his posture throughout a very difficult delivery, where he releases the ball about 2 inches, sometimes less, from the ground. He's not just a trickster, he's a guy with a deceptive, unusual delivery who is able to pitch — that is, change speeds, change locations and work on a hitter's weakness."

American fans might remember David Ortiz's awesome display of power from the MLB All-Star tour of Japan in November 2004. The Red Sox slugger smashed a home run estimated at 514 feet in the Tokyo Dome. It was Watanabe who served that 3-0 fastball.

"That was an all-star game, so you play with more of an exhibitionist mentality," he says. "In that setting, I would have rather Ortiz slammed it out like he did than just barely loft it over the fence; it was both impressive and fun to watch.

"But at the same time, that was a meaningful experience for me. It gave me a deep appreciation for the level of power major-league hitters have. I wasn't trying to overpower him there, but having that experience, it made me think, 'Wow, if you can't beat them with power, how do you beat them?' I've thought about it a lot since then and it was actually an important moment of learning for me."

Team Japan manager Sadaharu Oh has said he likes Watanabe in an international tournament like this because he's particularly difficult on batters seeing him for the first time. To be sure, since the Ortiz blast, Watanabe has had the last laugh against many hitters unfamiliar with his style.

Watanabe faced his Lotte club in a WBC exhibition primer as a member of Team Japan. Former Met Matt Franco is Watanabe's teammate with Lotte. Getting his first look at his teammate from the batter's box, Franco struck out swinging on four pitches and nubbed one off the end of the bat for a groundout to third.

"My advice would be to not try too hard to see the ball, just go up there and hit like he's any other pitcher," Franco said. "You might not see a couple of pitches as well as you normally would, but if you start trying to too much, it's only going to get worse."

Easier said than done. Seung Yeop Lee, who belted an Asian-record 56 home runs in 2003 when he was still playing in Korea, has also played with Watanabe at Lotte. He got his first look at the pitcher in the final game of the Asia Round.

After going 4 for 4 with two homers, two doubles and five RBI the night before, Lee was 0 for 2 against Watanabe, who gave up three hits and one run in his 4-2/3 innings against Korea.

Lee eventually won the first-round game with a dramatic eighth-inning home run well after Watanabe was gone.

On Wednesday, Watanabe and Lee are likely to see each other again, possibly with a spot in the WBC semifinals on the line. And Japan's chances of advancing to San Diego will at least partly lie merely inches off the ground.

Brad Lefton is a St. Louis-based journalist who has covered baseball in Japan and America. He often covers Ichiro for Japanese media and he interviewed Watanabe in Japanese for this article.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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