It could be a long season at Jingu Stadium this year.
Five pitchers combined on a no-hitter as the Yakult Swallows were shut out 3-0 in a nine-inning practice game Thursday against South Korea's Samsung Lions, who are also holding their spring camp in an unseasonably chilly Okinawa.
The Lions, who are managed by former Chunichi Dragons pitcher Sun Dong-yol, shouldn't read too much into the whitewash, however, as the Swallows rested several regulars, including All-Star center fielder Norichika Aoki.
"You never know what to expect in a game like this," said Swallows skipper Shigeru Takada. "The South Korean pitchers had good breaking balls and changeups, but the hitters are nowhere near ready as they'd only hit off batting practice pitchers before today."
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Speaking of Aoki, the hittin' magician has switched jersey numbers from 23 to No. 1 this season. When asked why he made the change, since 23 seemed to be working out pretty well for him, Aoki said it was done to honor former Swallows star player and manager Tsutomu Wakamatsu, who wore No. 1 and was recently elected to the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame.
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In what is becoming a Swallows spring camp tradition, infielder Jamie D'Antona hit the waves earlier this week and went out fishing with a few friends on the team's off day. D'Antona, an avid fisherman who makes his offseason home in South Carolina, said they pulled in about 60 yellowfin tuna and skipjack this time out, a little less than the 75 they hauled in last year.
"Got the team chef to cook 'em up with a little miso sauce and made sushi out of some," said D'Antona, who had to get up at 3 a.m. to make the fishing trip. "Oishi!"
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Other players prefer to pass their free time with indoor pursuits. Swallows outfielder Aaron Guiel bought a new 40-inch flat-screen TV for his hotel room to enhance his video-game experience. Who says ballplayers make too much money?
Newcomer Tony Barnette was looking for a way to kill downtime and someone told him to get lost--so he did, watching three seasons of "Lost" his couple of weeks in camp.
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Hiroyasu Tanaka is one of the better second basemen in the league, but you wouldn't know it from the nickname bestowed on him. A few years ago, then-teammate Adam Riggs noticed that Tanaka bore an uncanny resemblance to animated TV slacker Beavis of "Beavis and Butt-head" fame. The name stuck, and Tanaka loves it, wearing it like a badge of honor.
"Hey Beavis, how's it going?" I asked Tanaka as he emerged from the batting cage Thursday.
"Super-duper, sensational, outstanding," replied Beavis, one of the more entertaining and outgoing guys on the club and a favorite with fans and teammates alike.
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The players aren't the only ones getting ready for the season. The umpires are also working out the kinks, and this season they have to get used to calling balls and strikes the "American" way--for example a full count will now be called as 3-and-2 as opposed to 2-and-3 as they have done up until now.
During a Yoshinori Sato bullpen session Thursday, the men in blue--well, more like black and gray--were belting out ball and strike calls, no doubt correcting themselves if they inadvertently reverted to old ways.
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A beautiful new ballpark is under construction in Naha for the Yomiuri Giants to use for spring training next year.
The first official NPB game in the new building, however, will be a Swallows-BayStars tilt in June. As one Yakult player pointed out, it's a little like having the Red Sox and Indians open the new Yankee Stadium.