Iron Man Inao

With a 276-137 lifetime record, and a career ERA of 1.98, Iron Man Inao is widely regarded as the greatest of all Japanese pitchers. He broke in with a 21-6 record and 1.06 ERA at age 18, pacing the Lions to their second pennant and first Japan Championship as both ace starter and top clutch reliever. Inao earned his nickname Iron Man two years later, as the Lions made it four pennants in five years and three Japan Championships in a row. Either starting or relieving in all the Lions’ last nine regular-season games to put them into the Japan Series, Inao then started five of seven games against the Yomiuri Giants. He lost once as a starter and once in relief as the Giants took a 3-0 lead.

Pitching the last six innings of the fourth game, Inao homered in the 10th to keep the Lions alive. He then tossed three complete-game victories in a row, including a 26-inning scoreless streak, to beat the Giants in the greatest comeback in baseball history, Japanese or American. After his sensational debut, Inao posted records of 35-6, 33-10, 30-15, 20-7, 42-14, 25-18, and 28-16. His ERA climbed above 1.69 only once in his first five years, and never topped 2.54 in any year he pitched more than half a dozen games. Most incredibly, Inao appeared in 61, 68, 72, 75, 39, 78, 57, and 74 games over his first eight years, working 262, 374, 373, 402, 243, 404, 321, and 386 innings. In the seven years following his rookie season, Inao never completed fewer than 19 games. Not since the pitching distance was increased to 60′ 6″ has any American pitcher handled a comparable workload. Inao struck out 182, 288, 334, 321, 179, 353, 228, and 226 batters during his eight-year streak of dominance, totals even more impressive considering that Japanese batting styles then stressed contact over power. A complete player, he often kept himself in close games with excellent hitting and fielding, as well as his arm. The arm gave out in 1964. Appearing in only two games, Inao came back to handle a more normal workload in 1965 and 1966, averaging “only” 200 innings with ERAs of 2.38 and 1.79, in a “mere” 38 and 54 games, many in relief. Retiring as an active player three years later when only 31, Inao managed the Lions to five straight second-division finishes, 1970-74.