A few months after missing the playoffs for the first time, the Hanshin Tigers signed the latest in a long line of foreign outfielders they'd hoped would finally make an impact in the pennant race.
Matt Murton is the man in this spring's hot seat and so far, the 28-year-old redhead has been a ball of fire in far from familiar circumstances. The shock retirement of star center fielder and leadoff man Norihiro Akahoshi last autumn left the Tigers with two big holes and manager Akinobu Mayumi has asked Murton to fill both of them.
"Only time will tell if I can be a quality leadoff hitter," Murton said Tuesday at Tokyo Dome. "I'm a baseball player. I can't tell you I'm a center fielder. I don't know. I can't say I'm a leadoff hitter. I don't know. Only time will tell."
Later that evening, Murton homered in his final at-bat for an eighth-inning insurance run as the Tigers overcame a six-run deficit in a 9-7 win over the Yomiuri Giants.
He also had a double in five at-bats, but could easily have had four hits as a couple of rockets off his bat were caught, so his average fell to .407.
"Obviously it's early in the season and numbers don't mean a whole lot," Murton said. "It's a game that is dictated based upon numbers but as a player I find that if you can get to a place where you can find a way to compete every single at-bat, you're going to be much better off."
So far, he's been doing just that with 13 runs and seven RBIs in 17 games.
"I think this is a great opportunity for me to play at a high level of baseball and to get a chance to go out and play everyday," he said.
"I'm challenged by trying to play a new position, center field, which I think is going to be great in terms of making me a better baseball player. In terms of learning, there are things these pitchers do here that will be fundamentally different from what they'd do at home. I think that in itself is going to make you a more complete hitter.
"I look at it [this chance] as hopefully a way to get myself going back in the right direction career-wise."
Murton was a productive left fielder for the Chicago Cubs in 2006 and had a bright future ahead of him until his career came off the rails.
"I was 24...played a full season and led the team in hitting," Murton said. "And we signed [Alfonso] Soriano and not long after that I was relegated to Triple-A. [In] '08 I had a lot of trouble. I played badly. A lot of it was a lot of growing up I had to do. Mentally it was just difficult. I felt like it was unfair. Whatever it might be, last year I thought it was a chance for me to get back going in the right direction and this year is hopefully a chance to play.
"I haven't had 500-plus at-bats in one place in a season ever. So [this year] it will be the first time to do that and I'll find out what kind of a player I really am.
"You play 200 at-bats here, then you go down for 100 at-bats and you never find that rhythm, you never really know what you're fully capable of."
He's already avoided the April slump that has swallowed up the last two foreign hopefuls in the Tigers outfield.
In 2008, Lew Ford started 0-for-9. He broke out in two games against the Giants but floundered afterwards and was out of the Central League before August. Last year, Kevin Mench started 0-for-11 and was finished on May 16.
If work ethic counts for much, Murton is on the right track.
From discussing his approach with the manager after BP to hauling his interpreter with him to get input from the coaches on his baserunning, Murton is intense and focused in his practices.
"I had somebody once tell me it takes time to sharpen a tool and it can go dull quick. So you never want to go at the end of the day after you make a mistake on this field and say, 'Why is it that I didn't do something else to try and correct that?'
"When I go into the game, I want to feel well prepared."
"He's very serious," said Mayumi, who added he had never seen a foreign player so focused on every aspect of his pre-game practice.
"He isn't really a leadoff-type hitter, but we'll see," Mayumi said. "He hasn't had to deal with the summer heat yet, but so far he's been an eye-opener."