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Teen Sakamoto taking Giant steps

by John E. Gibson (Apr 1, 2008)

Few positions in Japan pro baseball have as much prestige as the middle-infield spots with the Yomiuri Giants.

So for the club to turn the second-base duties over to a skinny, pimple-faced kid in a season with such high expectations says a lot about the impact 19-year-old Hayato Sakamoto made in the preseason.

Born the same year as Sadaharu Oh's final season as Giants skipper, Sakamoto said his goal coming into camp was just to earn a spot on the roster.

What he earned was spot in Yomiuri history.

The second-year native of Hyogo Prefecture last week became only the fourth teenager in club history to break into the starting lineup on Opening Day. Hideki Matsui was the last to do it when he played in 1994. Oh and Sakazaki Kazuhiko were the others.

Injuries and poor performances by teammates vying for the second-base position boosted his efforts, but the young player got the nod because he was ready.

"When you watch him, he just has this air about him. He looks like he's going to get a hit when he's in the batter's box," batting coach Kazunori Shinozuka said before Sunday's game against Tokyo Yakult at Jingu Stadium.

"He has a lot confidence. He competes against a pitcher and that's a very important aspect of hitting. And because he has that kind of confidence, we have confidence in him."

Shinozuka said the team expected Ryota Wakiya to win the second-base spot, but he "didn't get the job done in the spring."

Sakamoto, who hit well early in camp but tailed at the end of the spring to finish with a .240 average, said he came to camp with a modest goal.

"To be honest, my aim from camp was to make the Opening Day roster, and I really didn't think about making the starting lineup. But this is a big chance for me."

Pushed into the shortstop position because of a torn calf muscle that is expected to sideline Tomohiro Nioka for about a month, Sakamoto is under the gun with the defending Central League champions.

"I don't think about the pressure," Sakamoto said matter-of-factly.

"I want to perform up to expectations, but I just want to go out and play hard. I can't decide where I'm going to play, that's not my decision. I just go out and play as hard as I can."

The Giants aren't adding to the pressure on the youngster, putting him the No. 8 slot in the order.

In his debut at-bat on Friday, he put a good swing on a 0-1 pitch and sent a liner to right for a tough out. He finished 0-for-3 with a walk, but the next day drew three walks before flying out to center.

His first hit of the season came on Sunday when he pulled a drive to left for a solid single off sixth-year Yakult hurler Masahiro Yoshikawa.

Two days without a hit were nothing to fret over, but his play in the field drew concern. He was hesitant on a couple of popups that fell in, and committed two errors in the middle game of the series.

Shinozuka said Sakamoto's used to playing shortstop, so inexperience isn't an issue. However, the responsibility brings with it more pressure. "I don't think he's worried about playing short, but it's a very different position," Shinozuka said.

"He might experience some stress about playing that spot and then carry that into the batter's box with him. That could likely affect the way he hits, but we haven't seen that so far."

To deal with the pressure and help him stay in the starting lineup and on the roster for the entire season, Shinozuka said the coaches will likely have more stress than their young prodigy.

"He has a lot to learn to be a confident player," Shinozuka said. "He came out of high school and he's only in his second year as a pro, so it's not easy to get a spot like this with the Giants.

"We have to give him confidence, and do a good job of communicating with him. If he does something wrong, we just have to be direct with him."


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