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THE HOT CORNER: Knowledge is key to disaster plans

by Jim Allen (Apr 17, 2008)

There is more to this game than just putting the greatest total of skills on the field for 144 games. If that were not the case, the 2005 Giants, a roster packed with All-Stars, would have blown away the Central League instead of finishing 25-1/2 games out in fifth place.

Skills alone, or at least the skills that scouts grade young players on, are not enough. Leadership, courage, discipline, planning and quick thinking are not mentioned nearly as often as team speed, power, pitching and defense, but they play a part nevertheless.

The 2005 Giants had big batters putting up big numbers, but when several of the big boys were hurt early, the club collapsed. Just having skilled players is not enough when things do not go according to plan. One needs to be prepared for the worst.

Every year, reality takes a big bite out of several managers' plans, and this spring has been particularly tough in the Pacific League. The Chiba Lotte Marines, Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, Orix Buffaloes and Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks have all been hit hard. Hawks skipper Sadaharu Oh knew in January that several key players would not be ready in March, so he could audition stand-ins in spring training. The others were less lucky.

Disaster hit the Buffs' starting rotation in the final days of the preseason. Some of Buffaloes boss Terry Collins' replacement arms have quickly proven themselves warriors and Orix has soldiered on.

While Collins has been shuffling his starters like a Blackjack dealer working a deck in Las Vegas, Bobby Valentine's Marines and Masataka Nashida's Fighters have taken their hits in the field.

Within a span of eight days, Nashida lost his first baseman, third baseman and shortstop. Even heavier casualties have forced Valentine to call up more reserves than he could have imagined.

While one signature of a successful team is how good it can be when everyone is healthy, how a club deals with injuries is another. If the PL is decided by injuries and how teams cope, the Marines may have an edge.

Last weekend, the Marines hurled their reserves into the front line against the beat-up Fighters and earned back-to-back 2-1 sayonara victories. On Sunday, Valentine moved second baseman Shunichi Nemoto to short, plugged the hole at second with converted catcher Masahiko Tanaka and gave 20-year-old Kei Hosoya a start in his PL debut, at first base.

Of the three, Hosoya is farthest from regular PL playing time. Even if he does get some hits, Valentine says he'll probably send Hosoya back down for more playing time rather than keeping him on the bench after his regulars get healthy.

"He enjoys playing. He uses the entire field, which you don't see a lot in a young hitter," Valentine told The Hot Corner on Tuesday.

A minor league third baseman of some promise, Hosoya tied Sunday's game with an RBI single before Nemoto won it in the 10th with a sayonara single.

Nemoto, who started the 2007 season at second base after winning the Eastern League batting title the year before, had trouble making the adjustment to the PL last year.

"It was tough getting his timing when he wasn't playing every day, but he's a good hitter," Valentine said of Nemoto, who went 0-for-4 on Tuesday to see his average drop to .315. "He makes good contact and hits it hard. He'll hit it out to left and you don't see a lot of left-handed hitters do that."

The skipper was, however, frank about Nemoto's defense potential, suggesting his arm will limit his fielding value. Still, Valentine is happy to have him bat leadoff and play short in a pinch.

The number of injuries to regulars makes it look like the Marines are in a bind, but Valentine has a big advantage in this situation. He knows his own minor leaguers' abilities as well as any other manager in Japan. While other teams often treat their farm teams as scrap heaps, the Marines look at their farm as the future.

Sticking a player into a new role is always a crap shoot, something every skipper would prefer to try according to his own long-term plans. Valentine's knowledge at least gives him an idea of the odds when disaster strikes and he has to roll the dice.


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