Tuesday, November 18, 2008

this pitcher throws like a schoolgirl

A 16-year-old schoolgirl is making a unique pitch to become the first woman to play professional baseball in Japan.

High school student Eri Yoshida was drafted by the Kobe 9 Cruise, a professional team in a new independent Japanese league that will start its first season in April.

"I always dreamed of becoming a professional," Yoshida, who is 5-feet (152-centimeters) tall and weighs 114 pounds (52 kilograms), told a news conference Monday. "I have only just been picked by the team and haven't achieved anything yet."

Yoshida throws a side-arm knuckleball and says she wants to follow in the footsteps of Boston Red Sox pitcher Tim Wakefield, who has built a successful major league career throwing a knuckleball.

Yoshida took part in a tryout held earlier this month and passed with flying colors. The right-hander held male batters hitless for one inning in the tryout and her successful outing helped her become one of the 33 players picked in the draft.

***

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The fraternity of knuckleball pitchers is small, and Tim Wakefield of the Boston Red Sox is its active godfather.

Eri Yoshida hopes to expand that roster and break the gender barrier at the same time.

Yoshida, the petite 18-year-old who became the first female drafted by a Japanese professional team, Kobe 9 Cruise of the Kansai Independent Baseball League, made her pro debut on March 26, 2009, at the Osaka Dome. She learned how to throw a knuckleball as a young girl by watching video of Wakefield.

On Tuesday, at the Red Sox player development complex, Yoshida, wearing a gray Boston T-shirt with Wakefield's name and number on the back, met her idol and pitched with him.

"I'm impressed," Wakefield said. "She spun a couple, but for the most part it was very good. She was able to take the spin out of a lot of them and they had quite a lot of movement on them."

Yoshida, who stands 5-foot-1 and throws her knuckleball with a sidearm motion, is in the United States to pitch in the independent Arizona Winter League. She got her first win on Feb. 12, tossing four shutout innings for the Yuma Scorpions. But she admitted she was nervous working with the 43-year-old Wakefield.

"I think everything that he taught me is going to give me a chance to really work on what I need to work on," she said through Red Sox team translator Masa Hoshino. "But also, I got a chance to meet him and it really gave me some courage and the confidence I need to really get back to training hard."

Wakefield, who is entering his 18th major league season, made his first All-Star team last year. He was happy to share his knowledge with someone willing to try the knuckler.

"It's an honor to have somebody carry on a knuckleball tradition," he said. "And somebody that's doing it because she likes what I do. It's pretty cool to have someone come over to the States from Japan. I heard about her last year. I know she's pitching in independent leagues now. But for her to come all the way to Fort Myers and watch me throw, it was an honor for me to just talk to her and give her some tips."

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The Golden League, dotted with former big leaguers and players with years of minor league experience, is not a good place for an 18-year-old to pitch.

Let alone an 18-year-old girl.

From Japan.

Say this about Eri Yoshida: she likes a challenge. With the spotlight of the media from both sides of the Pacific, Yoshida made her debut with the independent Chico Outlaws on Saturday night, becoming the first woman to pitch in a professional league in the U.S. since Ila Borders in 2000.

It didn't go that well, although you would never have known that by the throng of adoring fans cheering and begging for her autograph after the game.

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