A month before he was supposed to begin his second season in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball league, Zach Neal, an American pitcher, received what he called the highest honor in his career. The manager of his team, the Saitama Seibu Lions, gathered the players for a clubhouse ceremony in February to announce that Neal would be the Lions’ opening day starter.
For a player who struggled to find a regular spot on an American major league roster after being drafted in 2010 and then endured a similarly bumpy start in Japan, the news felt like a crowning achievement.
“I’d have to put this above even my M.L.B. debut at Fenway Park,” Neal, 31, said in a telephone interview from Tokyo.
Little did he know at the time of the announcement, however, that he would face several more difficult months before realizing his big moment.
After a 91-day delay because of the coronavirus, Japan’s league is set to begin on Friday, and Neal is expected to be the only foreign-born pitcher in the 12-team competition to start on opening day when his Lions face the Nippon-Ham Fighters.
While Japan has contained the virus better than most countries, with fewer than 1,000 confirmed deaths from Covid-19 through Thursday, the pandemic has decimated sports in the country, forcing the postponement of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and the cancellation of cultural mainstays like the national high school baseball tournament and Grand Sumo’s spring matches.
So as the exasperated island nation looks to baseball for hope, part of the responsibility for healing will be placed in the right hand of a native of Fort Worth who bounced around four M.L.B. organizations before finding himself in Japan.
“Baseball is one of the favorite pastimes of this country, so finally being able to start playing is a very symbolic thing and a huge lift for the country,” Neal said. “For the manager to give me the ball is a huge privilege.”
Originally scheduled to open on March 20, Japan’s season will begin without fans at the stadiums. Teams will play 120 games, reduced from the usual 143, culminating in a Japan Series championship — the league’s World Series equivalent — that will begin about one month later than normal, on Nov. 21.
For Neal and the rest of the league, it has been an agonizing wait of twists, turns, stops and starts. As the coronavirus hit the country, fans were prohibited from training camps in late February, but the league forged ahead in the hopes of being able to start the season on time, or with only a short delay.
An April 10 targeted start was moved to April 24. When that became unrealistic, the season was pushed to May, and eventually June. All the while, Neal and his wife were living in an apartment in the far western reaches of suburban Tokyo, a 30-minute drive from Seibu’s home park.
Neal said he quelled his restlessness by reading John Grisham novels and painting American western themes in acrylic. Eventually, Seibu’s stadium opened four days a week for voluntary workouts, and then a second spring training began May 18.
Exhibition games resumed June 2, with Neal getting two starts before Friday’s opener. Once again, he had to accept a new normal of health protocols.
“We get our temperature taken before we’re allowed to enter the ballpark every day,” he said. “We wear masks in the weight room, and there’s hand sanitizer everywhere. If you lick your fingers on the mound, they throw the ball out. Each night we get an email asking a bunch of questions. We’re not supposed to eat out, play golf or go anywhere except the field, the grocery store and home. It’s definitely different.”
Despite the heightened health concerns, two Yomiuri Giants players received positive results from a coronavirus test hours before an exhibition game against Neal’s Lions. It was abruptly canceled, and all players were sent home.
“We thought: Oh, no. Here we go again,” Neal said. “But those guys played the day before and didn’t have symptoms. That just shows you how weird this thing is.”
The two players, Hayato Sakamoto and Takumi Oshiro, were held out for 14 days. In the aftermath, Nippon Professional Baseball determined that all game-related employees, including players, coaches, managers, staff members and umpires, would be required to give a saliva sample for a test once a month beginning in June.
For Neal, it was just another speed bump in his baseball odyssey in Japan. Last season, he stumbled to a 1-1 record and an ugly 5.95 E.R.A. in four April starts. Those struggles earned him a demotion to the minor leagues, the termination point of many journeymen’s journeys, especially foreigners cast there on the flimsiness of a one-year contract, as Neal was.
But he was determined to adapt, even in the loneliness of Japan’s minor leagues. As he struggled to get accustomed to the barrage of unfamiliar hitters, Neal also found himself scuffling to get used to a longer routine between starts: Pitchers typically get six days off between starts in Japan, whereas four days is the norm in the U.S.
“I didn’t like it at first,” Neal said. “How much and when should I throw? What about weight lifting? It was tough to adjust, but I understood I would have to if I wanted to stay.”
He sought advice from his coaches on pitching techniques necessary to survive in Japan. One minor league coach from Taiwan had done exactly that over an unspectacular yet productive career in Japan that lasted 14 years. He told Neal to develop a cutter to complement his sinker and changeup.
Neal listened. He was recalled on June 20 last season, wielding a new arsenal that led to a stunning turnaround: He went on to become the fourth foreigner in Japanese baseball to win 11 consecutive decisions. From June 20 forward, he was 11-0 in 13 starts with an earned run average of 2.12.
Bob Melvin, the Oakland A’s manager who gave Neal the ball for his debut at Fenway Park in 2016, was unsurprised that Neal had earned the respect of his manager in Japan, Hatsuhiko Tsuji.
“Zach’s a grinder,” Melvin said in a telephone interview. “He’s persevered, and that takes mental toughness. Managers spend spring training making roster cuts and difficult decisions, so believe me, you look forward to being able to recognize a guy with the honor of starting opening day.”
The delays and added protocols have not fazed Neal, and his endurance has earned him an unlikely role in delivering a dose of optimism to the country of his latest journey.