The Orix Buffaloes clinched their third consecutive Pacific League pennant last Wednesday. While pitchers Yoshinobu Yamamoto, Hiroya Miyagi, Sachiya Yamasaki and Shunpeita Yamashita have been getting most of the attention this year, Kohei Azuma's the one who's done something that no one's done for over 80 years. Azuma has won his first seven decisions as a starter. That's in "first seven" for his career, not this season. The last pitcher to start their career with seven winning decisions was Hall Of Famer Hideo Fujimoto in 1942.
Azuma has followed an unlikely path to his current success. He was the ace pitcher on the Kobe Koryo Gakuen High School baseball team as a second year student but suffered a back injury during his junior year. He was taken by Orix in the second round of the development player (ikusei) draft in 2017 but didn't play at all during 2018 due to abdominal pain. He was healthy for all of 2019 and went 5-7 with a 3.84 ERA for Orix's farm team. He hurt his right arm and shoulder during spring training in 2020 and between that and COVID he only pitched in six games all year, going 0-2 with a 6.87 ERA.
At this point he'd been a development player for three years so his contract was up and the team released him but resigned him to a new contract afterwards - still as an ikusei player. He had a strong start to the 2021 season but his performance tailed off until his season came to an early stop when a batted ball fractured his arm in late September. He pitched well enough last season for the team to finally bring him on to the official 70 man roster in late July, making his ichi-gun debut on July 30th with a start against the Chiba Lotte Marines. He got his first win in his second start - against the Fighters on August 6th. He was sent back to ni-gun shortly after that but later made two appearances in relief with the top team.
He opened this season in the bullpen for the ichi-gun team but was sent back to the farm team to start after only a few appearances. After going 5-2 with a 2.18 ERA in 11 starts on the farm, Orix called him back up in late July. He's currently 6-0 with a 1.71 ERA.
Since he's been an ikusei player for most of his career, he does not have many baseball cards. As far as I can tell, he's had five cards in four sets. He has a card in the 2018 BBM Rookie Edition set, two cards in the 2018 Epoch Buffaloes Rookie & Stars set and a card in the 2019 Buffaloes team issued set. His only card (so far) that doesn't have him as a development player is in this year's BBM Buffaloes team set. I expect that he'll have his first BBM "flagship" card in the "1st Version Update" subset of this year's Fusion set. Here's one of his 2018 Epoch Buffaloes Rookies & Stars cards (#35a):
H/T NPB Reddit