Kei Igawa grew up and attended primary and secondary school in Ibaraki Prefecture. He joined a local baseball club, and until his elementary school years were over, was a right-handed pitcher. Even as a high schooler, he practiced throwing righty just to keep himself properly balanced.
Despite lower back discomfort in his high school days, Igawa once threw a 7-inning, 18-strikeout perfect game. Unfortunately when the game’s mattered in the prefectural tournament, Igawa sat on the bench. He took a painkiller injection before the finals, played in the game, but lost.
Despite never playing in the national tournament, Igawa had made enough of a name for himself to be selected in the second round of the 1997 draft by the Hanshin Tigers. He spent his entire rookie season on the farm, but got called up to the top squad in May 1999. His first appearances on the mound were in relief. But in his first start on May 19, he notched his first career win.
It took until 2001 for him to find a permanent spot in the team’s starting rotation, thanks to the confidence placed in him by then-manager Katsuya Nomura. That faith was almost immediately rewarded, as Igawa threw his first career complete game on April 24 (vs. Yomiuri Giants, Koshien Stadium). He was named to the all-star team, and ended the year with a 9-13 record (on a team that finished in last) and an ERA of 2.67 – good for second best in the league. His 89 walks were worst in the league, but his 171 strikeouts were good for third.
Igawa was named the Opening Day starter in 2002, and helped the team break an 11-game Opening Day losing streak, throwing a complete game. Despite struggling through the summer, Igawa led the league in strikeouts with 206.
Despite the losing his Opening Day start in 2003, Igawa threw 4 consecutive complete games (June/July) and won 12 straight decisions through August 2nd. (In doing so, he broke the club record originally held by the legendary Minoru Murayama.) He became the first pitcher in 24 seasons to reach the 20-win mark (Shigeru Kobayashi accomplished the feat in 1979), and was a major contributor in Hanshin’s first pennant in 18 seasons. Scheduled to pitch the day after Hanshin clinched the pennant, Igawa did not participate in the locker room celebration. (He does not drink alcohol, so perhaps it was not a hard decision for him.) Instead, he spent the evening physically and mentally preparing himself for the next day. (He threw a one-run complete game.) He was named Central League MVP and the Sawamura Award, too. In the Nippon Series, Igawa threw in two games: in Game 1 he went 5 innings and gave up 3 runs, and in Game 4 he went 5⅔ innings and allowed 4 runs. He did not figure in either decision.
Igawa continued to have success in 2004, despite the team slumping to 4th place in the standings. He collected 14 wins against 11 losses, despite a mediocre 3.73 ERA. He made history on October 4, throwing a no-hitter (most recent in team history) on the road against the Hiroshima Carp. (Earlier in the season, on April 9 against the Chunichi Dragons, he had a perfect game going through seven innings, but lost it when Kosuke Fukudome led off the 8th with a single.) At season’s end, he requested that the team post him so he could give Major League Baseball a try. Negotiations fell apart, and Igawa received a lot of bad press for his request.
Igawa was the pitcher on Opening Day once again in 2005. He did not have a particularly strong year, even getting sent down to the farm at one point. Vexed that he would get sent down to the farm, Igawa notched six straight victories when returned to the top squad. Despite the demotion, he was the first Central League pitcher to reach the 10-win mark. Then, on August 23rd in Hiroshima, he threw his 1000th career inning. This time around, he was in the locker room when Hanshin celebrated its pennant win. He was, however, inconspicuously absent for the on-field hoisting of manager Akinobu Okada. He did not have a great postseason, giving up 5 runs in 6 innings of work in Game 1 of the Nippon Series against the Chiba Lotte Marines. Hanshin went down in four straight. Once again at season’s end, Igawa requested to be posted, and once again he was rejected.
At long last, following the 2006 season, in which Igawa reached double digits in wins for the fifth straight year, the team gave in to his wish, and posted him so he could play Major League Baseball. The New York Yankees ponied up three billion yen for his rights. He signed a five-year contract on December 27, 2006, worth $20-million plus performance incentives.
Signed at the urging of Yankees assistant GM Billy Eppler, Igawa arrived at spring training with high hopes. But when Eppler asked the bullpen catcher what he thought about Igawa’s arm, the answer was a foreshadowed of the doom Igawa was about to face: “If he’s hurt, I can understand. But this is not major league quality. His control is awful.”
Igawa made his much-anticipated debut for the Yankees at home against the Baltimore Orioles. It failed to impress, and he was lucky he was not tagged with the loss, as he gave up 7 runs in 5 innings of work (8 hits, 4 walks, 2 home runs). The Yankees came from behind to win. A couple of starts later, he got his first career MLB win, going six innings and allowing two earned runs to the Cleveland Indians on April 18. But after his second win of the season – a long relief appearance (six innings, no runs against) on April 28, his season went downhill. Twice he got sent down to the minors, and he ended the year with an ERA of 6.25. He was still fairly highly regarded, and the San Diego Padres even expressed an interest in his services, but talks broke down when the Yankees tried to coax some of their lost posting fee out of the Padres, too.
The next season wasn’t any friendlier to Igawa. A start in the minors (with AAA Scranton/Wilkes-Barre) was interrupted ever so briefly for a three-inning, 11-hit 6-run start on May 9th (vs. Detroit Tigers), and again for one inning of mop-up duty on June 28 against the New York Mets. He was left off the club’s 40-man roster on July 26th, and while he tried to work his way back into good standing with the club, he was declared “a mistake” at season’s end by Yankees GM Brian Cashman.
He spent all of 2009 in AAA, where his first half was passable but his second half closely resembled his debut season with the Yankees (high ERA, lots of walks). By season’s end, he was named worst player of the decade in New York professional sports (as per New York Post). His 2010 season was als spent in the minors, where he put up mediocre numbers as a starter, and awful numbers as a reliever. With a year left on his deal with the Yankees, Igawa successfully got his green card and expressed an interest in continuing his career in America upon completing his contract.
In 2011, Igawa bounced between AAA (where he established a club record for most career starts) and the AA Trenton Thunder. Towards the end of June, he experienced discomfort in his throwing elbow, requiring six weeks to come back. His numbers that season were stellar out of the bullpen (1.90 ERA) but lackluster as a starter (4.72 ERA). Despite his desire to continue playing for a major league job, no offers presented themselves to Igawa that offseason.
Igawa announced his signing with the Orix Buffaloes on his personal website on March 28, 2012. In his first action on the top squad (May 9 vs. SoftBank Hawks), he injured himself in the 4th inning and left the game after just 62 pitches thrown. He eventually picked up his first NPB win in nearly 6 years on July 11 (vs. Rakuten Eagles), going 8 innings and allowing just 3 hits and 1 run. He tweaked his left oblique while pitching masterfully on August 2, and suffered a couple of bad outings (8 runs against in each) before finding himself deactivated on August 16. Upon returning to action, he reinjured his left side again in September, abruptly ending his season.
Despite posting solid numbers in 9 starts in 2013 (3-3, 2.59 ERA), Igawa was dropped down to the farm in August and finished the season there. Despite winning a spot in the rotation out of spring training in 2014, Igawa got spanked in his first start, lasting just ⅔ inning. Breaks in the schedule during Interleague play meant Igawa’s arm was not needed for a spell, and he was sent down to the farm. During that same period, other young left-handed pitchers emerged for the Buffaloes, and Igawa rode into the sunset on the farm team. His pitiful performance on the farm in 2015 (0-4, 14.40 ERA) resulted in his release at season’s end, thus putting a period on his professional career.
Igawa spent the 2016 season working out with the Hyogo Blue Sanders, though he never received an official offer with the team until that offseason. Even then, he was signed to a practice player’s contract, making him eligible to play only in scrimmages and exhibition games. Finally on March 31, 2017, the club announced that they had signed Igawa to an official contract. Igawa has said he is not thinking about a return to NPB just yet, but wants to first get himself in shape to last an entire season on the mound.