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The Hot Corner: Finding light in the abyss

by Jim Allen (May 28, 2009)

When asked how it felt playing for his country in March, Seiichi Uchikawa said the job required him to make an attitude adjustment.

"People expect us [Japan] to win," the 2008 Central League batting champ told The Hot Corner prior to the start of the World Baseball Classic. "That's not the case during the season. So it's a change."

That's what playing for Yokohama will do to you.

After losing four straight games prior to interleague, the BayStars relieved Akihiko Oya as manager and replaced him with former Yokohama Taiyo Whales slugger Tomio Tashiro.

Oya lost his job with the team 10 games under .500 on May 17. That's four games better than they were going into interleague a year ago, but still nothing to boast about.

Although the club's needs are many, this season's biggest issue has been a lack of offense.

"Our problem is that we have everybody off, then we have one guy [on] and everyone else is off," said new first baseman Dan Johnson.

Johnson, a solid on-base guy in both Triple-A and the majors, has yet to make enough adjustments to the game here. That his .328 on-base percentage is second among Yokohama's regulars highlights the club's most pressing need: getting more runners on.

Last year, Yokohama's .316 OBP was worst in Japan, although three other clubs sank nearly as low. This season, however, no one even approaches the BayStars' .289 on-base abyss.

That could change. Slugging Murata had a slow start after hurting his hamstring in the WBC and he hasn't hit yet, while Johnson has been drawing walks so far in interleague play.

While a postseason berth would be a stretch this season, the BayStars once more have a future. They are younger now than any season since 1997--the final season of Oya's first tenure and the year that preceded the club's run to a Japan Series title under rookie manager Hiroshi Gondo.

His first time around, Oya sorted through his young talent, changed some roles and let guys play. This time, he inherited an older club, with the final holdovers from 1997, a few veterans of slightly more recent vintage and a pair of young position players of value: third baseman Murata and outfielder Yuki Yoshimura. Uchikawa, who began his career as an injury-prone second baseman, was struggling then as a fourth outfielder.

In 2007, Oya sent Uchikawa to the minors, where he worked things out. Last season, Oya stuck him at first base and just let him hit and hit and hit.

Last winter, Oya had the unpleasant task of discarding two of his 1997 stars, outfielder Takanori Suzuki and shortstop Takuro Ishii. With the exit of catcher Ryoji Aikawa as a free agent, every BayStars game this season has been played with a chorus of "Who is this guy and where did he come from?"

Before long, the big question for BayStars fans could become, "How good can these guys be?"

Takehiro Ishikawa, 22, who got his first regular playing time last season, looks like he will be solid at shortstop. Rookie catcher Takeshi Hosoyamada, 23, has shown flashes of quality behind the plate and at bat.

While the pitching staff includes 35-year-old Daisuke Miura and 46-year-old Kimiyasu Kudo, the BayStars have some potential in second-year starter Futoshi Kobayashi, 26, and flame-throwing reliever Shun Yamaguchi, 21.

"We tell them [the batters] 'eat it!'" Johnson said of Yamaguchi. "He just pushes it. He's got guys swinging when the ball hits the glove. We love it."

In a game against the Giants, however, Yamaguchi wouldn't throw strikes.

"He's young and doesn't seem to know how good he is," Johnson said.

Oya initiated the current talent buildup. If Tashiro is able to lift expectations, the question, "Who are these guys and where did they come from?" could echoe around the league next summer.

"We're a lot better than we've played," Johnson said. "At some point the light bulb is going to come on and it's going to be fun to watch, because there are some legitimate players on this team."


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