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A Long One-Year Journey For Saito

10.07.09 at 3:00 pm ET
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ANAHEIM, Calif. ‘€“ Over the course of a year, Takashi Saito has traveled a distance far greater than the 30 miles that currently separates him from the team that could not use him in last year’€™s playoffs.

In 2008, Saito’€™s dominant emergence as a Dodgers closer was derailed by a strained elbow ligament. Faced with the prospect of either undergoing Tommy John surgery or undergoing a unique rehab process that included the injection of platelet-rich plasma, he opted for the latter in hopes of contributing.

Indeed, the 38-year-old viewed his career as being at a crossroads. He was prepared for the possibility that, if rehab didn’€™t work, he could walk away from the game.

‘€œInstead of taking one year to recover from the surgery, I thought it would be better to go through the rehab and try to pitch sooner. And also, at the same time, I was ready if that went a different way and I wasn’€™t able to pitch again without the surgery, I was ready for that as well,’€ Saito said recently through translator Mikio Yoshimura. ‘€œI wasn’€™t thinking about going through the surgery.’€

The strategy seemed to pay off. By the time last year’€™s playoffs arrived, Saito had recovered enough to pitch. Still, he was not to the point where Los Angeles could have enough confidence in him to restore him to the status of closer.

Though he had been one of the most dominant relievers in the game from 2006-08, forging a 1.95 ERA and recording 81 saves, he allowed three runs in 5.2 innings after his September comeback, walking four batters in that time while struggling with his mechanics.

He made the roster for the Division Series against the Cubs, but allowed two runs on three hits without recording an out while pitching in the ninth inning of a blowout win in Game 2. That was his last action of the playoffs.

Saito was usurped by Jonathan Broxton as Dodgers closer in the Division Series. When Los Angeles advanced to the NLCS against the Phillies, they opted to leave Saito off the roster.

Saito understood and was fully supportive of the decision, even though it represented a disappointment. Now, however, the distance from that time to now, as he prepares to help the Red Sox against the Angels in the 2009 Division Series, seems vast.

‘€œRight now,’€ Saito said, ‘€œI feel totally switched from that moment.’€

Though his usage has been monitored and regulated, Saito has remained healthy for the entirety of the 2009 season with the Sox, and has handled virtually any responsibility with which he has been entrusted. As the year has progressed, he became an increasingly trusted member of the Sox bullpen based on his performance.

Saito pitched in 56 games for the Sox, forging a 2.43 ERA in the process while striking out nearly a batter an inning. More impressively, after some inconsistencies after the start of the season, he carved a 1.85 ERA over his last 44 games (starting on May 13), and a 1.08 mark in the second half of the season.

‘€œHe’€™s held up remarkably well all year,’€ said Sox manager Terry Francona.

Though right-handed, Saito became one of the team’€™s most overpowering options against left-handed hitters, who he held to a .195 average, .273 OBP and .570 OPS. That performance, in turn, could make him an important contributor in the postseason against hitters such as the Angels’€™ Bobby Abreu (a left-hander) or against switch-hitters Kendry Morales, Chone Figgins and Erick Aybar.

It would be easy to suggest that Saito’€™s presence as a trusted pitcher for such circumstances defies the odds. But the 39-year-old himself does not view it that way.

‘€œIt’€™s not surprising at all,’€ said Saito. ‘€œAt the same time, I’€™m pleased being healthy and being able to contribute to this team.’€

A strong performance could position Saito well for this offseason. Though he signed with the Sox this year for a base salary of just $1.5 million, his good health garnered him millions in incentives, pushing his total earnings for the season to $6 million.

Saito is a pitcher who has shown the ability to close on a playoff team in the past. In 2009, he has shown that he is capable of pitching at a high level and remaining healthy.

Moreover, while the Sox could retain his services by exercising a team option for the amount of his total earnings in 2009 (meaning $6 million), the team is not expected to pay the pitcher a closer’€™s salary for a set-up role, particularly given the emergence of Daniel Bard as a set-up man.

The right-hander has given every indication of comfort in Boston, and assuming that the Sox decline his option, it would not be shocking if he were open to negotiating a new contract with the Sox. Certainly, he plans on coming back to pitch again in the majors next season at the age of 40.

‘€œSince it’€™s something I can’€™t control, I can’€™t say much, but I’€™m hoping to come back to America and pitch again, and [would like] especially to come back to the Red Sox,’€ Saito said.

If that doesn’€™t happen, Saito is also likely to be an attractive option to other clubs on the free-agent market. The reliever has a contract clause that stipulates that the Sox must release him if they do not pick up his option. That means that the club cannot offer him arbitration, and so other teams would not have to sacrifice a draft pick in order to acquire his services as a free agent.

Those concerns, however, can wait for the offseason. For now, Saito is content to focus on what is immediately in front of his team, and on the opportunity that he now has to pitch, one year after he was not in a position to do so.

It is a position that the pitcher embraces.

‘€œI’€™m not satisfied [with the 2009 season],’€ said Saito. ‘€œThere’€™s still ups and downs during the season. I want to be as perfect as possible, so I believe from now on will be a very important time for me.’€

Read More: Dodgers, playoffs, Takashi Saito,
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