CHICO, Calif. -- Eri Yoshida bounced off the mound with an ear-to-ear smile, looking every bit like an 18-year-old who had just graduated high school and was enjoying a new country.
It was what she did on the pitcher's mound -- and in the batter's box -- that set Yoshida apart.
Becoming the first woman to pitch professionally in the United States in a decade, Yoshida showed that she and her sidearm knuckler can hang with the men.
The "Knuckle Princess" was unfazed when a former major leaguer opened the game by bunting for a hit. She had a few knucklers that danced like those of her idol, Tim Wakefield of the Boston Red Sox. She pitched a scoreless first inning in her debut for the Chico Outlaws of the Golden Baseball League, before struggling a bit by allowing four runs in her final two frames.
She gave herself a tough grade of 20 out of 100, but the adoring fans who cheered her name throughout her news conference felt differently.
"I realize how hard it is to throw a good knuckleball," she said through an interpreter.
Yoshida is the first woman since Ila Borders in 2000 to play professionally in the United States. The 5-foot-1, 115-pound Yoshida is also the first woman to play professionally in two countries, having pitched last year in an independent league in Japan.
Yoshida got off to a much better debut than Borders did in her first game in 1997, when she failed to retire any of the three batters she faced for the Saint Paul Saints of the Northern League. Borders pitched four years in independent leagues, ending her career in 2000.
After former San Francisco Giants infielder Ivan Ochoa led off the game for the Tijuana Cimarrones by bunting for a single, drawing jeers from the crowd, Yoshida settled down and kept Tijuana off-balance with a sidearm knuckleball that usually registers in the 50 mph range.
She got Erold Andrus on a foul pop behind home plate before inducing former Yankees bonus baby Jackson Melian to ground into an inning-ending double play. Yoshida hopped off the mound in excitement after the nine-pitch inning and exchanged high-fives with her teammates in the dugout with a huge smile plastered on her teenage face.
Yoshida then hit an RBI single off David Rivas in her only at-bat in the bottom of the first, leading to a standing ovation from the near sellout crowd on "Girl Power Night." Even her teammates got caught up in the excitement, taking pictures of Yoshida standing on first after her bases-loaded single through the hole between first and second. She described the feeling after the hit as "unbelievable."
She fared better in her second encounter with a former major leaguer, getting Juan Melo to pop out to second base to open the second inning. She then got another former major leaguer, Kit Pellow, on a fly out to left before hitting Carlos Lopez with a pitch in the back. Juan Velasquez followed with a two-run homer for the first runs off Yoshida.
She didn't fare as well her second time through the order as the Tijuana players showed more patience. With two outs and nobody on in the third, she allowed three hits and a walk to her final four hitters. She got out of the inning when Melo was thrown out trying to score from second on a single to left by Pellow.
"It wasn't a very good knuckleball tonight," said Pellow, who played 99 games in the majors with Colorado and Kansas City. "It was doing a lot of tumbling. It really didn't have the knuckleball effect."
Yoshida allowed five hits, four runs and one walk in three innings, throwing 47 pitches on the night.
Spurred by the interest in Yoshida, the Outlaws are streaming all of their home games live on the Internet this season. About 25 media outlets were credentialed for the game.
While this might seem like a gimmick, it appeared to work as the Outlaws drew 4,400 fans to the game.
"It's entertainment," Pellow said. "This game is all about entertaining fans. Whether you do it with clowns or players or championships, however you do it, it's about entertainment."
Mika Kuriyama, a Chico State alum from San Leandro in the Bay Area, made the 3-hour-plus drive to take her 5-year-old daughter Hannah to the game. Hannah was decked out in a kimono and held a sign for the "Knuckle Princess."
"I admire her," Kuriyama said of Yoshida. "It takes a lot of guts to come out here and pitch. I really admire her. I wanted my daughter to be able to see that."
Yoshida learned to throw the knuckleball as a young girl by watching Wakefield. She taught herself the pitch and never had any formal coaching for how to throw the knuckler until meeting her idol during spring training in Florida earlier this year.
Yoshida became Japan's first female pro baseball player last year when she pitched for the Kobe Cruise 9 in the Kansai Independent League. She was 0-2 in 11 appearances with a 4.03 ERA.
She then went to the Arizona Winter League this past offseason, where her manager on the Yuma Scorpions was former Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Mike Marshall. She went 1-1 with a 4.79 ERA in Arizona and impressed Marshall enough to get a shot in Chico, where Marshall is the president and general manager.
Marshall said he has no doubt Yoshida has the makeup to handle this historic challenge. He said the biggest factor in determining how far she will be able to take it will be how much stronger she gets in the next few years.
"There's going to be a draft here in a couple weeks and there's probably only a handful of 18-year-old high school kids who are going to get drafted who could come here and play. Men," Marshall said. "Look at the rosters. You have Double-A, Triple-A, big-league guys. This isn't affiliated rookie ball; this isn't affiliated A-ball. This is way up there. These are 25- to 35-year-old men she's playing against."
Despite the disparity in age, experience, gender and cultural upbringing, Yoshida is fitting in well with her new team. Manager Garry Templeton, an admitted skeptic when he first saw her pitch this winter, said the players missed her when she didn't make a season-opening road trip to Mexico.
He said Yoshida has been taken to kangaroo court, where she was fined a dollar, like all newcomers to the court. The only special treatment she gets is separate locker room facilities to change in and her own hotel room on the road.
"They're protective of her," Templeton said. "She blends in well. She's just a ballplayer. They see her as a ballplayer, not as a girl."
Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press
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