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Nori riding high with Dragons

by John E. Gibson (Mar 19, 2008)

The Chunichi Dragons were the perfect team to sign Norihiro Nakamura a year ago.

The 34-year-old infielder had a burning desire to play the game and the Dragons were hot for another right-handed power hitter.

Before most players were thinking about the labors of spring training, Nakamura was doused with a bucket of cold reality when he couldn't negotiate a deal with the Orix Buffaloes in the offseason.

The third baseman stormed out on the club and sat on the sidelines, working out on his own while his representative tried to work out a deal somewhere. He ended up with the Dragons after passing a tryout--after all the other clubs turned their backs on him.

The signing, though, wasn't just because Chunichi thought the former Kintetsu and Orix slugger could add some pop to the lineup.

"I knew him when I was a bench coach in the Pacific League, and I knew he could play the field well," said Chunichi infield coach Nobuhiro Takashiro.

"I know he's steady on balls that are in his range--he doesn't have a great deal of range, but he's good on balls he gets to."

The Central League agreed, awarding Nakamura his sixth Golden Glove in 15 pro seasons last year.

"If he were a poor defensive player, the manager and the team wouldn't have brought him in here," Takashiro said.

Said cleanup batter Tyrone Woods: "Whatever [manager Hiromitsu] Ochiai has been doing lately, it's been working, so I never questioned him bringing in Nori."

Now, coming off a championship season capped by the Japan Series MVP award--mainly because of a record-tying four doubles--Nakamura said he has rededicated himself.

"Last year I came in as a non-roster player, and I don't want to forget that feeling every day when I go out and play," he said.

"Everything last year was so new to me, I really had to just stay focused on myself. I didn't have time to think about anyone else," said Nakamura, who sported the non-roster-indicating No. 205 until he made the club and took No. 99.

"This year is different. I want to try and work hard to improve my numbers from last season."

He'll have the opportunity to do that if he stays healthy. Nakamura hit .293 with 20 homers and 79 RBIs in 130 games. But he was slowed during the stretch drive by a bad back.

The pain, however, didn't hinder him from helping the Dragons erase 53 years of frustration with a Japan title. He played through the injury, swaddled in ice packs after every game, and the Dragons breathed easy after taking down the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters in a rematch of the 2006 Series.

"It all turned out great in the end," said Nakamura, who left Nagoya Dome fans with the final indelible image of tears streaming down his face on the interview podium after the Game 5 Series clincher.

Nakamura's renaissance wasn't without its rough patches, though. When his production fell off in midseason, he was showered nearly every day with tips from Ochiai, among others.

"I can't tell you the advice I got from the manager," Nakamura said bluntly. "But there were a lot of things to think about.

"That experience helped me come through in the end--helped me finish the season the way I did."

Woods said all the advice might have had him swinging in the wrong direction.

"He wasn't just going to come out and have success right away just by switching his stance," Woods said.

"They were messing with some of everything with him last year. So for him to just come out and stick with it--it worked out great for him and I'm happy for him.

"You know, nobody wanted him before the season started, and for him to come out and prove everybody wrong and for Ochiai to give him a second chance, I was very happy for him."

But Nakamura, who moved to the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2005 but spent most of the season with with the Triple-A team, said he continues to use all the coaching he received last season.

"I'm still working on that advice and trying to implement it," he said.

"There are many things I'm working on, and I'll continue working on them and try to get over those hurdles one by one.

"I really want to contribute to a winning team."

But Nakamura has to be careful. His back trouble could hold him back if he tweaks it again.

"I'll try to make sure it doesn't flare up," said Nakamura, who took painkillers to get through games last year.

He has also worked hard to drop some weight and improve his conditioning.

"In the offseason, he cut back on things like drinking and got into better shape," Takashiro said of Nakamura.

"He's moving better now, but we don't really want him to go all out in practice. But I'll tell you this, you can expect bigger and better things from him this year."


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