Getting his kicks through baseball
The 2011 Peninsula Oilers feature athletes from all corners of the country - California, Iowa, Florida, New Mexico.
But no one traveled as far as Gabriel Asakura for a chance to play on the central Kenai Peninsula.
Asakura, 22, was born in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and moved to the United States in January 2009. He is the first Brazilian-born player to compete in the Alaska Baseball League.
"It's always been my dream to play in the United States," Asakura said. "I didn't know what to expect, but I figured as long as I am playing baseball I will be fine. As long as I'm doing what I know how to do, I am set."
The 6-foot-2, 190-pound right-hander came to the Oilers by way of California State University-Los Angeles, where he will be a senior this fall.
But his dream of playing baseball in the U.S. started long before college.
In a country best known for soccer, Asakura always preferred pitching to the "pitch." He was never any good at soccer, he said, and baseball was a natural fit because both his father and older brother played.
Asakura participated in the national sport as a youngster, sure, but baseball took over after he stepped on the diamond at the age of 6.
He played shortstop and second base, then took the mound for the first time at 14.
Soon a competitor was born.
"You can go to the bullpen and work on mechanics and work on everything, but once it comes to the game it's just heart," Asakura said. "When you're up there, if you start thinking about mechanics and all those other things, you forget that the only thing is winning, being successful, helping your team win."
Asakura's approach to pitching combines Japanese and Cuban influences because he worked with coaches from both countries for about three years at a baseball academy in Brazil, learning the game from two perspectives.
The way he attacks hitters is similar to many Cuban pitchers in that it's aggressive. The way he approaches the game from mechanical and mental standpoints, however, is closer to the Japanese.
"For Cubans, it's aggressive mentality and the way to win is just play hard all the time," Asakura said. "For Japanese, it's have heart, a strong head. Nobody can beat you mentally. If you are stronger mentally you are going to beat the game."
The approach hasn't gone unnoticed by his teammates.
Oilers left fielder and backup shortstop Manny Acosta, who plays at Asakura's college and is his roommate for the summer, said the pitcher's personality off the field doesn't reflect the competitor he is on the field.
"He is very kind, he has a lot of respect for people, he likes to laugh - just a real fun guy to be around," Acosta said. "On the field, he is a competitor. He gets on that mound and he is a different person. He likes to compete. He has big expectations for himself. He plays hard, he pitches every pitch like it's his last pitch."
So to which Major League pitcher could Asakura be compared?
He respects Roy Halladay of the Philadelphia Phillies and Josh Beckett of the Boston Red Sox, but he ultimately wants to stand alone.
Plus, no Brazilian-born player has been drafted to the majors. That's something Asakura hopes to see change, using it as motivation.
He received attention from pro scouts last year, but when the 2010 MLB Draft came around, the call never came.
"I wasn't disappointed, I just have to work harder. If I get drafted, somebody is going to go down to Brazil and start bringing those guys in," Asakura said. "I just want to have a chance. It's hard to be the first one because nobody is going to believe in you much - ‘There has never been a Major League Brazilian player, so why would I draft a Brazilian player?'"
A strong junior year in college, coupled with his 2011 season with the Oilers, should bolster Asakura's status.
He anchored the pitching staff for his college squad last season, leading the team with seven wins, six complete games, two shutouts and an opposing-team batting average of .194. He also posted a 1.38 ERA in 72 innings, notching 74 strikeouts to 31 walks.
That success carried over to the Oilers, who won the ABL for the first time since 2006 and conclude the regular season at 4 p.m. today at the Anchorage Glacier Pilots.
Including nonleague games, Asakura started a team-high eight games and pitched 41 1-3 innings. He had 31 strikeouts.
With six pitches - a two-seam fastball, four-seam fastball, slider, changeup, curveball and knuckle-curve - Asakura likes to keep hitters guessing.
Asakura also pitches from the stretch even when the bases are empty - which is very unique for a starter - meaning it's second nature for him to hold runners on base.
But the intensity he brings to the hill might be his strongest trait.
"When he gets on the mound, the last thing I worry about is him getting after it," Oilers coach Dennis Machado said. "And that's just fun to watch because not only does he get after it, but his stuff is really good. When you have a combination of those two things, that's a great thing to watch."
The Oilers begin the National Baseball Congress World Series in Wichita, Kan., on Aug. 3. It's a great chance for Asakura to further his dream of being the first from Brazil to get drafted by the big leagues.
Not that he wants to be the last.
"I have to play my game, have my fun. That way I'm going to help them, the next people. If I take it for granted, I'm not doing it for me and neither for those people," Asakura said. "Hopefully because I am the first one here, people will start going down there to see some players and bring them over here. There is so much more talent there."