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Rob Smaal

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Ya' gotta wonder if ...

by Rob Smaal (Mar 26, 2010)

... Yakult Swallows poster-boy Norichika Aoki can get his average up around .400 this season, something he told us he aspired to (but didn't actually expect to achieve). Don't bet against yourself, Nori. Since he started playing regularly with the club in 2005, Aoki has averaged over 180 hits a season and three times hit over .340.

As a testament to how good a hitter Aoki is, he had a disappointing season in 2009 when he hit a measly .303, thanks to a strong second half after a slow start.

To say the Swallows need him on his game might be something of an understatement, seeing as how they finished the 2010 preseason with a team batting average of .219, which ranked 12th among the 12 NPB teams.

* * *

... the Yokohama BayStars new slugger Terrmel Sledge will be afflicted with the same case of "Beer-Can Blues" that made life miserable for Dan Johnson last season. Johnson, like Sledge a left-handed power hitter, claimed that he often had trouble picking the ball up out of the pitcher's hand because it blended in with the silvery-white backdrop created by two large Asahi Super Dry banners on the Yokohama Stadium scoreboard.

Sledge, who came over in the offseason as a free agent from the Nippon-Ham Fighters, doesn't appear to be looking for excuses, however.

"Didn't even notice them," he said when asked if the cans bothered him, before adding: "I know one thing--they're not gonna change it (even if they did bother him)."

Now that's an attitude that might help the BayStars climb out of the CL cellar. We'll drink to that!

* * *

... Kenji Jojima, the Hanshin Tigers' new catcher, will live to regret leaving all that Mariners money on the table as he tries to revive the fortunes of the under-achieving Osaka club.

When Jojima moved from Safeco to Koshien, he ditched the final two years of a lucrative MLB contract worth close to $16 million (1.47 billion yen) to join a team that won 67 games last year. We know that money ain't everything, but that's a helluva chunk of change to turn your nose up at.

Will Jojima help out in Osaka? Probably, as he's an upgrade over the other backstops on the roster, but if even a dredged-up Colonel Sanders can't get this ship righted, what hope does Kenji have?

* * *

... Yomiuri Giants right-hander Dicky Gonzalez will be able to catch lightning in a bottle again this season. Gonzalez, a portly Puerto Rican in his seventh year in Japan, won 15 games in his first season with the club last year, earning him a nice pay raise in the offseason. With fellow-righty Seth Greisinger on the shelf to start the 2010 season, Giants manager Tatsunori Hara will be hoping for another big year from the big guy.

Can he deliver? If he stays healthy it should be a given, but let's not forget that he did miss the entire 2007 season with Yakult due to an elbow injury and made only eight appearances for the Swallows in 2008.

To your health, Dicky!

* * *

... Chunichi Dragons reliever Maximo Nelson will be an integral part of manager Hiromitsu Ochiai's arsenal as the Dragons gun for their eighth Central League title in 2010. (Sorry, we couldn't resist all those gun puns.) Nelson, as you may recall, is the 200-centimeter Dominican who was arrested at Okinawa's Naha airport with a bullet in his carry-on bag as the team boarded a flight. Nelson, who joined the club last season, apologized, bowed and was then handed a three-month ban by the ballclub.

Perhaps Nelson could have appealed the ban, but in the end he decided to--wait for it--bite the bullet and accept the penalty.

* * *

... the Hiroshima Carp's new manager Kenjiro Nomura can improve the fortunes of the club with the limited budget he'll have to work with. The 43-year-old Nomura, who takes over from Marty Brown (who has taken the reins of the Rakuten Eagles), is a forward-thinking guy who has studied the game a lot in the United States since retiring as a player after the 2005 season.

If his players need to draw inspiration, they need look no further than their skipper's illustrious career. Over 17 seasons, Ken, as his charges call him, compiled over 2,000 hits, led the league in hitting three times and led the league in stolen bases three times, all as an infielder with the Carp.

Hiroshima last won the CL flag in 1991, and their last Japan Series title came back in 1984. A championship in Nomura's rookie year at the helm might be a stretch, especially after the team's fifth-place showing last year, but if his playing days are anything to go by it won't be from lack of effort.


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