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Lions' Nakajima roars on after hitting big time

by Jim Allen (Apr 23, 2011)

Entering his 11th pro season, Hiroyuki Nakajima says the best baseball advice he's received was when a coach told him to just believe in his own ability.

"That's something that really helped me and has stuck with me," Nakajima said in a recent interview.

The Saitama Seibu Lions shortstop, whose 11 RBIs leads the Pacific League this season, has been remarkably consistent the past five seasons, despite suffering a long series of small injuries.

Nakajima was an instant success when inserted into the starting lineup in 2004 by first-year manager Tsutomu Ito. Taking over from outgoing shortstop Kazuo Matsui, Nakajima hit 27 homers. The following season, however, he was struck in the face by a bad-hop grounder and hit just 11 homers and his average dipped slightly.

That year, batting coach Masahiro Doi told Nakajima to never doubt himself.

"He said, 'Go into each game, each at-bat, knowing you are going to get a hit," Nakajima said. "I had been going through a lot of ups and downs at the time."

The advice, he said, helped him achieve some stability by training himself not to overreact to the previous day's failures.

Since then, Nakajima has never batted lower than .300 or had an on-base percentage under .360, despite suffering numerous dings from getting hit with pitches. Nakajima has been plunked at least 10 times a year since becoming a regular.

"Over time, I've been able to wear better gear, and protect myself that way, while learning how to avoid the ball a little better," he said. "But in any event, you can't play scared.

"Injuries are going to occur regardless of what you do--whether you try to avoid them or not. So it doesn't help to worry about getting hurt."

Nakajima, a high school pitcher who learned to play shortstop after turning pro, had a hard time getting Pacific League playing time until things changed at Seibu after the 2003 season. That autumn, manager Haruki Ihara, who didn't think much of the infielder's defense, was fired, and Matsui left for the majors as a free agent.

This year, Matsui is back in Japan, playing for the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles. Next week, Nakajima will get to play against the guy whose job he inherited in 2004.

"Over the years, he's been very gracious, treating me to dinner, telling me all about the majors," Nakajima said. "It's going to be fun [to play against him]."

Just as Matsui went to the majors, the big leagues also beckon Nakajima.

"I've never seen a game in person, but I watch them on TV," he said.

"Sometimes you'll watch and you'll see a pitch and think, 'That's amazing,' but until you're there in the batter's box, you can't really tell.

"I want to see for myself how fast the pitches are, what kind of movement they have."

Nakajima has been asking the Lions to put his negotiating rights up for auction to major league teams through the posting system, but so far the team has not budged.

The past two winters have seen Nakajima in conflict with the front office, but the issues have been resolved and he just seems to move forward without a hitch.

Baseball, he said, has taught him to persevere.

"Every day, you have to keep going," he said. "When you're exhausted, or ill, you can't quit. Whether you're hitting, or not hitting, you can't get into a funk.

"What's done is done. Tomorrow's another day and you have to get on with it."


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