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John E. Gibson

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HARD DRIVES: Giving some love to the glove

by John E. Gibson (Jan 5, 2011)

Announcers go hoarse calling them, fans hop to their feet to applaud them, pitchers' ERAs are swayed by them, offensively challenged players make their living with them, and coaches and managers act as if they themselves made them happen.

Great defensive plays are the backbone of the diamond, yet they're the least-lasting memories fans have when winter winds whip through empty stadiums.

Offensive performances normally vacuum up every last morsel of hero worship in the offseason, but Hard Drives would like to honor three standout catches from the past Japan pro baseball season.

All three plays were efforts in the outfield, the third best coming in Game 4 of the Japan Series between the Chunichi Dragons and title-winning Chiba Lotte Marines.

Two were out in the sixth inning Nov. 3 when Hidenori Kuramoto--normally a late-game defensive replacement but on this night a starter with the designated-hitter rule in effect in the Pacific League park--tracked down a shot off the bat of Kim Tae Kyun with runners on first and third and the score tied.

Hidenori, who despite his lack of national recognition goes by his first name only, ranged to his right and dove to make a run-saving catch.

The Dragons, also thanks to Hidenori carrying home the go-ahead run in the 11th inning, prevailed 4-3--a game that epitomized the teams' epic seven-game duel.

Hidenori's catch was perhaps the best of a slew of defensive efforts around the diamond that helped the Dragons hang in the Series against a team that overmatched them with offensive prowess.

The No. 2 play is much like the top selection, but stands on its own as a fantastic effort.

Hiroshima Carp Soichiro Amaya went back to the roughly 2.5-meter wall on Aug. 22 at Mazda Zoom-Zoom Stadium, affectionately called "The Zoom," stood on the lip between the padding and the chain-link fence and camped under a soaring high drive off the bat of Yokohama BayStars slugger Brett Harper.

Amaya was able to make the grab at The Zoom because the padding in front of fence forms a ledge. In this case, the ball was also high enough to allow Amaya time to adjust with a step and a backward lean and pick it off, saving a run for pitcher Yuki Saito. The Carp won the game 6-1, but lefty Saito's stats were spared some damage by the catch.

The year's best play was a catch in left-center field that earned the year's No. 3 rank in ESPN's top plays of the year, though the network's announcers figuratively took a bat to Akamatsu's name in their efforts to pronounce it.

The Aug. 4 play was a click magnet on YouTube and was dubbed the "Spiderman Catch."

It came in a game that again featured Saito on the mound, facing those same BayStars. Akamatsu had no time to adjust on a deep liner by Yokohama cleanup man Shuichi Murata. He raced back, took a big step onto the padding and just stuck his glove out.

Akamatsu said he was aware of the fanfare his catch drew, but it was just a case of good fortune.

"There's a ledge back there and I was able to get into position to catch it," Akamatsu told Hard Drives a few weeks after the play. "I ran to a spot and I was lucky that the ball happened to go where I thought it was going."

Teammate Justin Huber called it "the best catch I've ever seen."

"I thought, 'Oh, no. There's another run.' And he was like Spiderman, coming out of nowhere, climbing up the wall--the next thing you know he's over the wall catching it and bringing it back. It was incredible."

In most parks, Amaya and Akamatsu would have had no chance. Thanks to The Zoom, this play no doubt helped Akamatsu win his first golden glove award last year. Huber said he'll probably never see anything like it again.

"To get up there--you can't stand there and jump up on [the ledge]," Huber said.

"He had to hit it and jump right at the right time. There's so much timing involved, there's so much athleticism involved. You may not ever see a catch as good as that the rest of the time you're on a baseball field."


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