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THE HOT CORNER: Fiery skip should help lift Eagles

by Jim Allen (Feb 17, 2011)

In the right place and time, one man can make a difference. With a new manager in veteran skipper Senichi Hoshino, Tohoku Rakuten Eagles fans must be hoping Sendai is the place and now is the time.

This will be Hoshino's fourth job as a pro manager. In each of his three previous efforts, he has managed his club to the Japan Series within four seasons.

As a rookie skipper in 1987, Hoshino managed a Chunichi Dragons team that had finished fifth for two straight seasons to a second-place finish. In his second year at the helm, the Dragons finished 12 games ahead of the second-place Yomiuri Giants.

In 1991, the hyperdramatic Hoshino vowed to quit if Chunichi failed to win the pennant. After finishing second in the Central League, Sen-chan made his exit.

His exile lasted until 1996, when he took over a Chunichi team that had finished fifth the year before. By 1999, Hoshino again had the Dragons in the Japan Series. Two years later, however, he'd had enough. Saying a change was needed for the good of the team following a fifth-place finish, Hoshino again walked away.

Within a few months, however, Sen-chan was unexpectedly back in a saddle. When Tigers skipper Katsuya Nomura suddenly resigned after his wife was charged with tax evasion, Hanshin begged Hoshino to take over.

In three years, Nomura had built up the Tigers' talent base but never got them out of the CL cellar, where Hanshin had finished for four straight seasons. Under Hoshino, the Tigers finished third in 2002, their best finish since 1992. The following season, they were in the Japan Series.

Despite his third straight Series defeat, Hoshino shared the Matsutaro Shoriki Award with his victorious rival in 2003, Fukuoka Daiei Hawks skipper Sadaharu Oh. But once more, Hoshino walked away. Citing poor health, he quit after the Series.

He has since managed Japan's 2008 Beijing Olympics debacle, the third time in four tries that a team with Nippon Professional Baseball stars failed to win a medal. Otherwise, Sen-chan has spent the last seven seasons watching as an analyst.

The time away from the dugout seems to have agreed with Hoshino, who looks better than he has in years. Long regarded as Japanese baseball's most combative character, Hoshino, who turned 64 in January, has definitely mellowed.

The question is whether he can now get one more club to the Japan Series.

The '99 Dragons are the only one of Hoshino's championship teams he actually rebuilt. With the Dragons in '88 and the Tigers in '03, an existing core of quality talent was expanded by huge acquisitions and by Hoshino giving jobs to underutilized young players.

The Eagles, however, need to be rebuilt.

In 2010, the Eagles finished last under manager Marty Brown, who gave a job to untried outfielder Ryo Hijirisawa, but the team's farm team talent cupboard is now bare.

Over the winter, Rakuten did sign former major league infielders Akinori Iwamura and Kazuo Matsui, while ace right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma turned down a contract offer from the Oakland Athletics and will be back for another season in Sendai.

That's an infusion of talent but nothing like what Hoshino has benefitted from in the past. From 1987 to 1988, the Dragons added two future Hall of Famers (Hiromitsu Ochiai and Kazuyoshi Tatsunami), while his Tigers acquired future Hall of Famer Tomoaki Kanemoto and a valuable free agent, Atsushi Kataoka.

Iwamura and Matsui should combine to add at least nine wins to the 62 the Eagles won last year. Hijirisawa could be worth one or two more. Hoshino has had success identifying pitchers who can close, and that might be worth another win.

Matsui's health is a question mark. If he can play 120 games this year, Hoshino will have the Eagles playing .500 ball and competing for a playoff spot.

The Eagles, however, need more than an upgrade. Getting this club to the Series is going to take a number of years and a greater commitment than Rakuten's front office has made in the past.


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