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John E. Gibson

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Hard Drives: Unheralded Giants make big impact

by John E. Gibson (Oct 21, 2009)

Imagine where the big-name Yomiuri Giants would be without their little people.

You know the ones--or maybe you don't. They're the guys in the lineup who set the table, and the men on the mound who keep the scoreboard clean for the giant Giants--the ones with the nicknames and ginormous paychecks.

The Central League's three-peat champs seem destined for a Japan Series title this year, but the biggest reason for their shining success has come in small and sometimes plainly wrap packages.

Take, for instance, the team's best pitcher this year: Dicky Gonzalez, a 30-year-old right-hander who was essentially shoved off the train platform by the Tokyo Yakult Swallows in the offseason.

Gonzalez saved the face of the Yomiuri pitching staff. He won 15 games with a sparkling 2.11 ERA to thrust himself into the brightest of spotlights.

Gonzalez wasn't even on the Giants' radar in the preseason and didn't pitch for the first team until May 3. Suffice to say, he was a savior on a staff that had just two other double-digit winners, Seth Greisinger and Hisanori Takahashi.

Wirfin Obispo--whose name sounds like a cross between a Smurf and a Club Med resort--was an instructional league pitcher with a funky delivery and the wrong kind of control issues.

But the righty came on late in the first half of the season and posted a 6-1 record with a 2.45 ERA in 14 outings.

He is likely to get a shot on the mound in the CLCS, with Greisinger sidelined because of a bad elbow.

In the field, it looked like Takahiro Suzuki was a lock for the centerfield job after his 2008 breakthrough, when he batted .304 and stole 30 bases.

Instead, Tetsuya Matsumoto came out swinging and landed the job. He also did some running and catching and emerged from the shadows and onto center stage--despite one major league scout grading his arm as below average.

The fleet-footed Matsumoto slapped and chopped his way to a .293 average with a team-high 27 sacrifices.

He helped an order that led the CL with 650 runs by pestering opposing pitchers who were busy showering themselves in stress sweat while trying to figure out how to contain Michihiro Ogasawara and Alex Ramirez.

Another valuable little Giant was outfielder and first baseman Yoshiyuki Kamei, who burst on the scene in a big way.

The fifth-year player had been lost in an outfield shuffle that included the likes of Yoshitomo Tani and Yoshinobu Takahashi. But the need for some left-handed pop arose when Takahashi fell and first baseman Lee Seung Yeop lost his way. Kamei stepped up, with 25 homers, 79 runs and 71 RBIs, while batting .290.

"I was confident I could contribute when the season opened," Kamei told Hard Drives at Tokyo Dome on Tuesday. "But not even I thought I was going to hit this many home runs."

His knack for coming through with clutch hits made him an instant fan favorite, but the man who came up biggest with runners in scoring position was Tani.

The part-timer, whose wife Ryoko, a.k.a. Yawara-chan, remains an icon, quietly goes about the business of hitting in a part-time role. With runners on second or third, he delivered with a team-high .400 average, coming through with 11 homers and 48 RBIs in just 287 at-bats over 101 games.

So for guys like Rami-chan and Guts to hog the headlines--and much of the glory--the little guys figure to play a big role if the Giants are going to end their six-year Japan Series drought.

"Certainly each individual has to play well and produce and that will help us get good results in the end," Kamei said.

"That's where Matsumoto, [shortstop Hayato] Sakamoto and myself--the young players--we have to be productive.

"The most important thing is winning the Japan Series. That's what everyone wants, and while stats are important, we have to have the mind-set 'The team won and I played.' You have to put the team first.

"If everyone doesn't feel this way, then you can't be the best in Japan. But this year I think everyone feels the same."

Yomiuri has star power, but the biggest postseason statement is likely to come from one of the little Giants.


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