Yomiuri Giants' Hayato Sakamoto joined some fast company this year, and team captain Shinnosuke Abe will make sure he keeps up to speed.
Sakamoto, who strives to remain positive, spent the whole season with the big club--an uncommon achievement for a teenager. He even played every one of the Giants' 155 games.
"Nothing good's going to happen if you get down on yourself," Sakamoto told the Yomiuri Shimbun last spring after he took over as the team's everyday shortstop. "I don't let failures get to me. I want to enjoy the game."
Although Sakamoto batted .257, his season was better than those produced by future Hall of Famers Kazuo Matsui, Tomonori Maeda at the same age.
Sakamoto first drew attention to himself with an extra-inning, RBI pinch-hit single that lifted the Giants to victory in Nagoya in September 2007.
With two outs and the bases loaded in the 12th inning, Sakamoto took a full cut and muscled a fastball into center field to drive in two runs.
"Not a lot of guys are going to get in that situation," said Abe, when asked why he invited the youngster to train with him in Guam last January. "You could see he had something."
Although Sakamoto had only three Central League at-bats as an 18-year-old, he said his work in the Eastern League, where he hit .268 in 302 at-bats, provided the laboratory he needed to develop.
"You want to work on technique in practice, but the games were great because they gave me a chance to try different things in practice," said Sakamoto, who was Yomiuri's first pick in the 2006 high school draft.
After winning a chance to play second base in spring training, Sakamoto took over short part-way through Opening Day, when Tomohiro Nioka was felled by an injury.
With the job his to lose, Sakamoto got hot. Toward the end of April, he drove in a run in four straight games and lifted his average to .303.
"When there are runners on, I banish useless thoughts as I go to the plate, and just think about swinging," Sakamoto said after his game-winning hit on April 23. "Instead, I just think how lucky I am to come up in that situation."
Sakamoto's situation might have changed on July 20, when Nioka returned to action, but manager Tatsunori Hara shoved the veteran over to third base and left Sakamoto to start 154 of the Giants' 155 games.
Sakamoto came to the plate 567 times, making him one of 15 teenagers since 1985 to have batted over 200 times in a season. Among those are five players with 2,000-hit careers and another two who should achieve that mark this season. Akinori Iwamura of the Tampa Bay Rays and Chiba Lotte Marines star Tsuyoshi Nishioka are also in the group.
The least successful of the 15 teen regulars hit 147 career home runs and played until he was 36.
The Giants, apparently realizing Sakamoto could be their starter at short for the next seven seasons, sent Nioka north in a November trade to the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters.
Sakamoto, who drew a happy face on the button of his cap this year to remind himself to stay positive, and said his goal for 2008 was just making the CL club, certainly has a future worth smiling about.
Abe, however, is going to do his best to keep Sakamoto's feet on the ground and has invited him back to Guam again this month.
"I'm going to make him work more than I do--at least double," Abe told the Daily Sports last week.
"He has a lot to learn next year. There's a danger he could get too comfortable. That's when you get hurt.
"You have to become used to having some nerves while you aim high."
The Sakamoto file
Born: Dec. 14, 1988
Claims to fame:
--Played in 155 games in 2008
--Most plate appearances (567) by a teenage Giant since Hideki Matsui (569) in 1994.
Outlook for 2009: Golden Glove and Best IX candidate.