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Japan’s record-breaking baseball phenomenon with a tragic past

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Lotte Marines pitcher Roki Sasaki smiles during the Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) match between the Chiba Lotte Marines and Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters. AFP

Japan’s record-breaking baseball phenomenon with a tragic past

At just 20, Japan’s Roki Sasaki has already achieved what most pitchers can only dream of – a perfect game. Then he followed it up by very nearly doing it again.

The Lotte Marines right-hander sparked a frenzy earlier this month when he became the first pitcher to deliver a perfect game in Japan in 28 years, as well as the youngest person ever to do so in the baseball-mad country.

A perfect game in baseball is when no opposing batter reaches base and it has been achieved by just 23 pitchers in the US major league and 16 in Japan, including Sasaki. None have achieved the feat twice.

And after bagging 13 consecutive strikeouts in that game against the Orix Buffaloes – a new record – last weekend Sasaki proved his performance was far from a fluke, delivering eight perfect innings before being pulled by his coach to protect his arm.

“Two straight perfect games, which has never been done in Japan or US Major League Baseball, didn’t quite happen. But the right-hander... made everyone imagine historic moments to come,” Sports Nippon wrote.

Sasaki also made international headlines. US media has described him as a “phenom”, with one sports writer speculating American baseball fans would be “drooling in anticipation” over a possible stateside move.

But Japanese league rules require players to see out nine seasons before becoming free agents to go overseas.

Teams can post their players for MLB clubs, but fees for those under 25 years of age are limited under the rules, making it a less attractive prospect.

Sasaki has met the furore with trademark reserve, telling local media the day after his perfect game that he was already looking ahead to his next performance.

Sasaki, who comes from Japan’s northeastern Iwate region, has a tragic back story.

As a young boy his world was turned upside down by the devastating 2011 earthquake-tsunami which wrought destruction in northeastern Japan.

His father and grandparents were killed and his home was destroyed.

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