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THE HOT CORNER: The Eaglets have landed in PL race

by Jim Allen (Jul 10, 2008)

Tohoku Rakuten made great strides last season, but being relatively old and slow meant the Golden Eagles' future would not be bright unless the team got younger.

The remodeling process had begun when 27-year-old rookie Naoto Watanabe played 119 games at shortstop in 2007, and Motohiro Shima (22) was the starting catcher. Although Watanabe was hardly a pup, it was a small step in the right direction for a team that was intentionally old when it was organized in 2004.

The club's first skipper, Yasushi Tao, wanted underappreciated veterans who would go all out when given a last chance to play regularly--a chance he himself didn't get in the tailend of his career.

The upside was that Tao found several overlooked guys who could really play, the two best being second baseman Yosuke Takasu and designated hitter Takeshi Yamasaki. Takasu, now 32, was a good player without a regular job with the Kintetsu Buffaloes. Yamasaki, now 39, was released by Orix on Dec. 2, 2004 and has had three excellent years with the Eagles.

The downside was that most of the rest of the roster was not built for future growth. Under manager Katsuya Nomura, however, the Eagles have continually upgraded with youth whenever possible. Now Rakuten is both younger and involved in the playoff picture.

One of Japan's more interesting minor league batters last season was outfielder Masato Nakamura. While playing in just 52 Eastern League games, Nakamura hit .346 in 153 at-bats with 17 walks and just seven strikeouts.

Last Saturday at Seibu Dome, Nakamura looked like he was playing pepper: making sure contact with a compact swing and looping the ball on efficient trajectories into the outfield.

"He has a plan at the plate, he takes some pitches, knows what he wants to do up there," teammate Jose Fernandez said Sunday of the 26-year-old, who was signed from the Eagles' developmental roster on June 25 and stuck in the starting lineup a week later.

Fuminori Yokogawa, who has also made a good impression on Fernandez, didn't hit for average last year in the Eastern League but did hit the ball hard and draw some walks. Yokogawa isn't a big player now, but at the age of 23, he has a chance to become a solid Rakuten regular.

Nomura emphasized that his new kids on the block were just getting their feet wet and that it was an ongoing process.

"It's not so different from last year, when we had Watanabe and Shima," Nomura said. "We bring guys up, give them a chance and see what they can do."

Sometimes what they can do is prove their inexperience, as Watanabe did on Saturday. His poor bunt deflated a scoring opportunity against the league-leading Lions in a game the Eagles might have won.

"That's why he's on the bench today," Nomura said the next day. "We have made far too many mistakes this year."

The shortstop believes that is part of the process, and that even though he was older than most of the Eaglets, he is not exempt from mistakes.

"With young players, I suppose this is part of the cost, accepting that we will make mistakes," he said.

One wonders how he approached his first encounter with Nomura's famously poison tongue.

"The skipper didn't worry me as much as the thought of letting down my teammates," said Watanabe, who took the long road to the pros, first university then the corporate leagues.

"It's almost as if they found me lying around and gave me a job. Because of that, I feel a debt of gratitude."

Watanabe has been repaying the debt this spring, leading the Pacific League with 57 runs thanks to a .372 on-base percentage. Like Nomura's successful teams in the past, the Eagles are driven by on-base percentage, with four Rakuten players, including Yamasaki and Takasu, in the top 10.

"If we have an advantage, it's that our farm manager [Minoru] Matsui was Nomura's head coach for years," said current head coach Hideki Hashigami. "Matsui knows what the skipper needs on the first team and he knows when they are ready. They come up and know what to expect."

And gradually, what they have come to expect is being part of a younger, more competitive team.


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