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Kuriyama makes best of break

by Jim Allen (May 14, 2010)

Because the Saitama Seibu Lions have more than their share of big players, a quiet player with a broad base of skills tends to get lost in the shuffle.

It took an accident for Takumi Kuriyama to get regular playing time in the Pacific League as a 21-year-old. Five years later, he's Seibu's established regular in center field and in the No. 2 spot in the lineup but still easy to overlook.

"It's difficult to get noticed if your place is No. 2 [in the order]," he told The Daily Yomiuri on Thursday at Tokyo Dome.

"Of course you think about your qualities as a player and what you can do, but when you bat second you become a function of the offense. You connect the leadoff man [Yasuyuki] Kataoka and give the No. 3 hitter [Hiroyuki] Nakajima a better chance to drive him in. That's my job.

"That role makes it very hard to shine at what I do best."

In April 2005, teammate Tomoaki Sato misjudged the tiny amount of foul territory in Sendai's remodeled ballpark and broke his leg crashing into a wall in pursuit of a foul fly.

That break saw Kuriyama called up from the Eastern League the next day. He finished the season batting .297 in 286 at-bats. But for three years he was in and out of then manger Tsutomu Ito's lineup, where seniority protected the playing time of older veterans.

Kuriyama's fortunes got a boost in 2008, when farm manager Hisanobu Watanabe was promoted to manage the PL club. Kuriyama, Kataoka, who is seven months older, and third baseman Takeya Nakamura, one month older, all earned everyday jobs under Watanabe. The trio helped boost the Lions to the Japan Series championship that autumn.

Kataoka led the PL in steals and Nakamura topped the home run chart, while Kuriyama had his career year so far, hitting .317 with a .450 slugging average. He had 31 doubles, three triples and 11 homers, while stealing 17 base, drawing 49 walks, scoring 76 runs and driving in 72.

According to Watanabe, the key to Kuriyama is his passion.

"He's an exciting player and reliable. Simply put he loves to play the game," the skipper said.

Although he's hardly a square peg in a round hole, Kuriyama said he burns to show he can be more than a cog in the offense.

"This year, my goal is to bring more of my game out, although so far it's not going well," said Kuriyama, who entered Thursday's game batting .275, 13 points below his career average.

The upside to this season has been his big hits. His 10 doubles are most on the Lions and his .353 average with runners in scoring position has given him 26 RBIs third most on the team behind Dee Brown's 31 and Nakajima's 27.

Although Kuriyama owns a starting job, the Lions are now deeper in the outfield than at any time since he came up. A pair of longtime farm hands, Tatsuyuki Uemoto, 29, and Hisashi Takayama, 28, are battling the two veteran Satos, Tomoaki and G.G., for playing time in left and right. While no one is threatening to cut into Kuriyama's playing time, he appreciates their situation, having had to scrape for a job himself.

"My situation now is very different from theirs," Kuriyama said.

"Although they are senior to me [on the team], I can sympathize with their challenge. I hope they do their best. It's a good thing. If they play better, they push me to play better. Because above all, the game is about results."

Although blessed with a variety of tools, Kuriyama said what he wants most is to drive in runs.

"I think my sales point is my ability to battle," he said. "RBIs are what drives me. I know that's not easy if you're a No. 2 hitter, but I want people to see that in me, see my real game."

Watanabe appreciates the whole package, the defense, base running, doubles, homers, walks, but Kuriyama is not satisfied.

"I'm glad [he sees it], but I want more."

In other baseball news:

--The Eastern League's Yakult Swallows and Shonan Searex broke a 49-year-old league record for runs in a game on Tuesday, when the Swallows beat the BayStars' farm club 26-20 in Toda, Saitama Prefecture.

The previous record was 37 runs, set in 1961 and equaled in 2005.


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