Kazuhisa Inao: The Greatest “Big Game” pitcher in Japanese Baseball History
Those of us who grew up during the ’50s in Japan all knew about Kazuhisa “Iron Man” Inao. In fact, he earned that nickname on his way to 276 career victories and a revered place in Japan’s Baseball Hall of Fame.
Victor Starffin and Tadashi “Bozo” Wakabayashi, great pitchers in their era, were now retired. Masaichi Kaneda, the greatest left-handed pitcher in Japanese history, would soon become a star. The legendary Eiji Sawamura was deceased. For now, there was Inao, the right-hander with the blazing fastball. His pitching motion has been compared to John Smoltz, one of the best ever.
Hiromi Wada, Inao’s catcher, said that Inao’s control was so consistent he was “like a machine”–he had the ability to hit his spots with amazing regularity.
Of course, us Nankai Hawks fans didn’t root for Inao. After all, he was the ace of the Nishitetsu Lions, our main competition for Pacific League pennants. Yet, one couldn’t help but admire his exploits. He was, simply, the best.
He was the youngest son of a fisherman from Beppu, a hot springs resort in the northeast corner of Kyushu, the southwesternmost of the four main islands that make up the Japanese mainland. As a high school player, he mostly caught, because his strong throwing arm made it difficult for opponents to steal bases off him. Inao, 5’11 1/2″ and 195 pounds, signed out of high school with the Nishitetsu Lions, who played in Fukuoka (western Kyushu) at venerable Heiwadai Stadium.
His career statistics are amazing. In 1956, his rookie year, he won Rookie of the Year honors, going 21-6, with an ERA of 1.06, a Japan Pro Baseball record. In 1957 and 1958, he won back-to-back MVP Awards. He was the youngest player since the fabled Sawamura to win the MVP.
In 1958 and 1961, he won the Triple Crown of pitching (Wins, ERA, and Ks). In 1961, he had an unbelievable 353 Ks (in a 130 game season). He also went 42-14 in 1961, tying Victor Starffin’s 1939 record for most wins in a season. In 1957, he won an unmatchable 20 games in a row. From 1956 through 1959, his WHIP was less than 1!
For his career, Inao won 5 ERA titles. And, in 1958, after leading his Lions to the Pacific League crown over the Nankai Hawks, he authored his legendary post-season pitching performance in the Japan Series–he won 4 consecutive games as a starting pitcher (after his team had lost the first 3 games) over the vaunted Yomiuri Giants, a team that has post-season credentials like the New York Yankees.
In fact, in this country, we consider Hall of Famer Christy Mathewson’s 3 complete game shutout victories in the 1905 World Series against the Philadelphia Athletics to be nothing short of superhuman. It is the greatest postseason pitching performance of All-Time. Inao, though, has a well-deserved niche in this conversation, based on his 1958 post-season achievement.
As Game 1 commenced, Inao, who was suffering from a high fever, took the mound. He pitched gamely, but suffered a 9-2 loss. Still sick, he didn’t pitch Game 2, which the Lions also lost, 7-3.
With his team down, 2 games to none, he started Game 3, still weak from the fever. Inao pitched superbly, but the Lions were edged, 1-0, by the highly-touted Giants. Now down, 3 games to none, Inao took the hill again, holding the Giants to 1 hit through 7 innings, and winning the game. In Game 5, with Inao pitching superbly, at the end of 9 innings, the score was 3-3. Inao pitched a scoreless 10th, and then hit a walk-off homerun to win the game for the Lions.
Now, Inao begged his manager to let him start Game 6. The request was granted. He proceeded to pitch a masterpiece, a complete game shutout, 3-0. The Series was now even at 3 games apiece.
For Game 7, the now-dubbed “Iron Man”, Inao got the starting assignment… and pitched another gem, a complete game 6-1 4th straight win. The Giants’ lone run was a ninth inning home run by Shigeo Nagashima, a future Hall of Famer.
Inao had now done the impossible. He had won all 4 of The Lions’ victories, in a row, securing the Japan Series title. He had pitched 47 innings, struck out 32, and walked only 4 for a WHIP of way below 1. He was, of course, named the Series’ MVP.
To this day, Inao is referred to as the “Iron Man”.
In his career, Inao won 11 Japan Series games, and holds that record together with the great Giants pitcher, Tsuneo Horiuchi. Inao led the Lions to consecutive Japan Series crowns in 1956, 1957 and 1958. His career ERA is 1.98, behind only the great Hideo Fujimoto and Jiro Noguchi. He was elected to Japan’s Baseball Hall of Fame in 1993, and his number “24” was retired by the Lions (now, the Seibu Lions) in 2012.
He is always considered one of Japan’s 4 greatest pitchers ever, together with Victor Starffin, Masaichi Kaneda and Eiji Sawamura.
During his era, there was a popular saying in Japan, “God, Buddha, And Inao”–as a tribute to his omnipresent superiority.
Yasumitsu Toyoda, Japan’s greatest hitting shortstop, who played with Inao, once said, “Among my list of great pitchers, there is only one… Inao.”
In America, Mathewson’s name is at the top of the “Big Game” pitchers’ list, together with John Smoltz, Curt Schilling, Andy Pettitte and others, but Kazuhisa Inao is certainly on the list as one of baseball history’s top Big Game pitchers.