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Rob Smaal

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'Typhoon' energizes Swallows

by Rob Smaal (Sep 3, 2010)

Like many ballplayers who wind up on these shores, slugging first baseman Josh Whitesell was a Triple-A monster who couldn't quite make that final step into a regular job in the Show.

But, after hitting .200 in 115 at-bats over 53 games in the bigs, MLB's loss has been the Yakult Swallows' gain.

"It was unfortunate that I wasn't able to get more consistent at-bats in the big leagues, but I'm definitely not the only guy that type of scenario has happened to," Whitesell, 28, said after a recent game at Jingu Stadium. "It is what it is and I'm thankful for the opportunity over here. I'm going to try to take advantage of it as best I can."

And has he ever been making the most it. Since playing his first game here at the end of June, "Typhoon Josh" has been wreaking havoc on Central League pitching.

Through Wednesday, Whitesell is hitting .339 with a team-best .443 on-base percentage and .661 slugging percentage. His 13 home runs through his first 48 games here work out to close to 40 over an entire season. He also has 13 doubles, 44 RBIs and 29 walks. Whitesell has whiffed 46 times, but he does not get cheated on his swing and he has been known to absolutely crush the ball on occasion.

The Swallows acquired the left-handed power hitter when their two foreign position players, Aaron Guiel and Jamie D'Antona, went into simultaneous slumps. Guiel's production was down as he battled a herniated disk in his back and D'Antona has been hampered by a balky knee. With both men hitting just over .200, the Swallows brought in Whitesell from the Washington Nationals' organization.

Since big Josh has joined the club, Yakult has been on a tear, going 33-16-1 since his debut on June 26. The fourth-place Swallows are now playing .500 baseball, back in the hunt for a CL playoff spot, something that didn't seem possible back in late May when the team was doing so poorly that manager Shigeru Takada stepped down to take responsibility.

Unlike a lot of ballplayers who come over from North America, Whitesell didn't take long to get the hang of yakyu.

"I always expect to do well in any baseball league I play in," said Whitesell, a reformed pitcher and a workout addict with legs like tree trunks. "It's been helpful to have teammates like AG and Jamie to help acclimate me over here. There's definitely an adjustment period, but I just try to take it one day at a time."

Whitesell is one of the few Jewish players in professional baseball. Unlike former Los Angeles Dodgers star Shawn Green, who famously decided not to play on Yom Kippur in 2001, Whitesell maintains that has never been an issue for him.

"I've never missed any games on religious grounds," Whitesell said. "It's something (my faith) that I still keep close to me, but it's not something I'm going to miss work over. I'm here to do a job and that comes first."

Whitesell was born in Durham, North Carolina, but grew up in California, where he and Florida Marlins right-hander Ricky Nolasco formed a formidable pitching duo at Rialto High School. It looked like Whitesell's future would be on the mound.

"In high school I was being recruited more for college and professionally as a pitcher," Whitesell recalled. "I was a left-handed pitcher that threw in the high-80s, low-90s (mph). In my freshman year in college (at Loyola Marymount University) I was the No. 1 starter on the team for much of the season. In the last series of the year I was diving back into first base and I jammed my shoulder into the bag and tore my labrum. That took about six miles per hour off my fastball and basically ended my pitching career in the same breath. Thankfully, I'm able to swing the bat a little bit."

As a hitter, Whitesell said he likes to pattern his game after major-league veteran Jim Thome, currently with the Minnesota Twins.

"(Thome) always takes good at-bats and is patient, someone with a good on-base percentage but who's also looking to drive the ball," said Whitesell, who was selected in the sixth round of the 2003 draft by the Montreal Expos.

"I think my biggest strength as a hitter is that I try to take a good at-bat every time, I'm not going to go up there flailing at the first pitch I see. I try to take a plan of attack up to the plate. If I can do that consistently, every at-bat have a good plan, really give the pitcher a battle, then at the end of the year my numbers will be where they should be."

Whitesell has racked up several accolades over his college and minor-league career--he's been the Arizona Diamondbacks' Minor League Player of the Year, a Baseball America Triple-A All-Star, the Pacific Coast League Rookie of the Year--but those aren't the only honors he has received.

Far from a one-dimensional athlete, Whitesell graduated second in his high school class of 685 with a 4.2 grade point average and, as an engineering/ math student in college, he had a 4.0 GPA and won a number of academic achievement awards.

"(I studied engineering), but the time-consuming labs proved to be a little too much," said Whitesell, who plans to spend the offseason chasing around his twin toddlers and working out. "I'd already taken a good amount of math courses so I switched my major to math.

"I was drafted after my junior year so I still have one more year of college to go before my degree."

Despite his academic success, Whitesell never doubted the career path he wanted to take.

"At no point did I ever want to deter from baseball. I wanted to pursue this as long as I could, strap on the spikes as long as I can."

The Yakult Swallows are grateful he did.


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