Back in late-2005, when Japan's baseball brain trust got together to select their team for the inaugural World Baseball Classic, Yokohama BayStars infielder Shuichi Murata was barely a blip on their radar screens, if that.
Heading into the Olympics just 2 1/2 years later, however, it would almost be a crime if Murata were not the starting third baseman on manager Senichi Hoshino's Team Japan.
"When the WBC came around I didn't feel I was mature enough as a player at that point to make the team, I felt like I was still growing as a player," Murata said Tuesday at Tokyo's Jingu Stadium. "I still think back and wish I could have made that team, but I also realize I wasn't ready then."
What Murata, now 27, has grown into is a slightly bigger version of Akinori Iwamura, a former Yakult Swallows power-hitting infielder who is carving out a successful career in the majors with the Tampa Bay Rays.
The first pick of the BayStars in the 2003 draft, the right-handed-hitting Murata began his pro career with a bang, blasting 25 home runs in his rookie season. A sophomore slump--if you can call it that--saw him dip to 15 homers in 2004, but since then he's been cranking 'em out with regularity.
Murata posted particularly impressive numbers in 2006, when he bashed 34 HRs and drove in 114 runs, and last season, when he led the Central League in home runs with 36 to go along with his 101 RBIs. Murata's batting average has also climbed every year since his debut season, going from .224 to .242, .258, .266 and .287 last year.
This season, the Fukuoka native is on a tear again. Through Tuesday's games, Murata was among the CL power leaders again, hitting .276 with 19 dongs and 53 ribbies.
While Hoshino & Co. still have to pare the list of Olympic team candidates from the current 39 down to 24, Murata looks like a lock to make the squad. Still, he is taking nothing for granted.
"To represent Japan, that will be quite an honor if it happens," said Murata, who has played previously for his country at both the high school and college level. "This time, I played in the qualification round already (when Japan won the Asian Championship in Taiwan last December to earn its Olympic berth) so I'll be really glad if I can make the team for Beijing.
"I felt that after the WBC (which Japan won in 2006), Japanese baseball overall kind of got some recognition from the rest of the world. That's why I really hope to play for the national team this time."
Until then, Murata keeps plugging away for the woeful BayStars, who are having another disappointing season and seem to have taken up permanent residence in the CL basement. Despite a lineup featuring the likes of Murata, young slugging outfielder Yuuki Yoshimura (16 HRs) and the current leading hitter in Japanese baseball, Seiichi Uchikawa (.367 avg.), Yokohama finds itself firmly at the foot of the CL standings with a 21-51-1 record, 29 games behind the league-leading Hanshin Tigers.
"Now I really know for a fact that the most important people on a baseball team are the pitchers," noted Murata. "Nothing against our pitchers, but if we got some young guys who could help our pitching staff that would be great, because we always have a good offense and our younger hitters are maturing as well."
With a chance to shine on the world stage this August in Beijing, it may only be a matter of time before Murata joins countrymen like Iwamura and Ichiro in the major leagues.
"If I could speak a little more English, maybe I'd think about it," said Murata, wearing a big smile.
When pointed out that swinging a bat like he does usually knocks down any language barriers, he adds: "If going to the United States ever became an option for me, I'd take that as quite an honor, too."