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THE HOT CORNER: Kobayashi rides role-er coaster

by Jim Allen (Apr 1, 2010)

Almost everyone needs a push now and then. After all, it's human nature to find the happy medium where we get the greatest gain from our effort and run at cruising speed.

Because of this, managers sometimes have to push players' buttons to get them to turn things around or perhaps find a higher gear.

Sometimes the stimulus can be in the form of an insult. When Katsuya Nomura took over the Tigers in 1999, he sent slugging outfielder Tsuyoshi Shinjo to the minors to work on his pitching, saying Shinjo's batting approach rendered him useless as a position player.

Shinjo never pitched for Nomura but did produce two straight seasons with the bat that surpassed anything he'd done to that point.

Sometimes the stimulus can be in the form of a new role. In 2007, Giants skipper Tatsunori Hara asked Yoshinobu Takahashi to bat leadoff. A chronic underachiever in the middle of the order, Takahashi took his transfer into the domain of slap-hitting speedsters as a slap in the face.

Takahashi's way of proving his manager wrong was to have his career year, an MVP-caliber season, at the age of 33.

This year in Chiba, new Lotte Marines manager Norifumi Nishimura inherited two pitching problems. The first was a weak bullpen that had been further depleted by the release of the Marines' best pitcher from 2009, reliever Brian Sikorski.

The second problem was that if the most valuable pitcher is in the bullpen, the starters aren't getting the job done. Nishimura's solution was to take one of the guys who had been a quality starter and make him a reliever.

The skipper settled on right-hander Hiroyuki Kobayashi, a solid starter for five seasons from 2003 to 2007, who posted a 5.02 ERA in 2008 and a 4.29 mark in 2009.

"You always want to come back and get it right, and it stung to hear I wouldn't have a chance to get it right as a starter," Kobayashi told The Hot Corner recently.

"Last year, it wasn't a mechanical issue but a mental one. When you're not winning, you press, try to do too much, try to rush everything, make it happen now. Things got worse and worse and panic set in."

Every game is a quest for the right balance of run scoring and run prevention. To achieve that, batters, fielders and pitchers must execute their plans and make adjustments.

If an individual feels he has to carry more than his share of the load or has to perform significantly beyond his established levels, it can cause catastrophic failure. When players lose confidence in the group's ability to get results, it leads to teams playing much worse than they should.

This appears to have been the case last summer in Chiba, where the essential synergy between pitchers and fielders evaporated, and the Marines had their worst defensive season in 16 years.

Having a manager who is new but also familiar with the team's talent is a big plus. The soft-spoken, positive Nishimura has quietly been able to push the Marines' reset button.

Although Kobayashi had never considered himself anything other than a starter, a move to another high-profile position meant the switch was a disappointment but a challenge rather than an insult.

"I feel I still have a big role to fill and whatever regrets I have left over from last year, I want to redeem myself in my new situation," he said.

The 31-year-old missed the start of the season with stiffness in his elbow, and didn't officially begin his role-er coaster ride until he was activated on Tuesday. He came into that night's game against the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles with one out and the tying run on deck.

Kobayashi battled Daisuke Kusano, who succumbed on the ninth pitch, flying out to second. When Kenshi Kawaguchi went down swinging five pitches later, he walked off with his first career save and the game ball, compliments of starter Yuki Karakawa.

"I was a burden by being too late for Opening Day," said Kobayashi. "I'll take this [ball] home and put it in my trophy case."

Whether or not he adds more to his collection remains to be seen, but it could be a good ride.


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