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Lions' Asamura forced to play the field

by Jim Allen (May 25, 2011)

Seibu Lions fans have been getting a glimpse of their future this spring.

When the Lions opened the season on April 9, the oldest Japanese player in the starting lineup was 28-year-old shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima.

The youngest was 20-year-old first baseman Hideto Asamura, who made his Pacific League debut last spring with a pinch-hit RBI double. He hit .262 in 42 at-bats last season as he came off the bench and filled in at third base and short, which he considers his real position.

"He's not really a first baseman," Lions designated hitter Jose Fernandez told The Daily Yomiuri last weekend at Seibu Dome. "They just didn't have anywhere to play him. And they've got to play him because he can hit."

As of Monday, Asamura was batting .283, although his average has declined steadily since opening the season with 11 hits in his first five games.

On Sunday, he went 0-for-4 in his first full game in the outfield.

The Lions are looking forward to the day when Seibu can leave Asamura in one position and let him hit, although it might come sooner than they hope. Nakajima has pleaded with the club to post him to the majors, and Asamura's development offensively as a hitter might make it easier to part with their No. 3 hitter and team leader.

If Asamura does succeed "Nakaji" at short, he will be become just the Lions' third regular at the position since Kazuo Matsui started playing every day in the latter stages of the 1996 season.

The connection will not be lost on Asamura, who idolized Matsui as a boy and wears No. 32, Matsui's original number with the Lions.

"I grew up in the Kansai region, and he was with Seibu so I didn't get to see him play much. Still, I loved watching him on TV," Asamura said.

Matsui, Nakajima and Asamura all come from Kansai and all signed with Seibu out of high school--Matsui from Osaka's PL Gakuen, Asamura from Osaka Toin and Nakajima from Hyogo Prefecture's Itamikita. Matsui and Asamura were No. 3 draft picks, while Nakajima went in the fifth round.

The parallels diverge there, however. While Matsui and Nakajima were high school pitchers, Asamura was a star shortstop. His two homers from the leadoff spot helped propel Toin to the 2008 championship. Unfortunately for Asamura, his ability at shortstop did not translate into instant playing time.

With Nakajima a lock at short, Yasuyuki Kataoka secure at second and slugger Takeya Nakamura anchoring third, the Lions had few options for Asamura to contribute with his glove. The club opted to have Asamura learn to play first.

"It was completely new to me, but I'm gradually getting used to it," said Asamura, who started there in Seibu's first 28 games.

When interleague play forced PL clubs to do without a designated hitter, the Lions handed the youngster another challenge: left field.

"I started taking fly balls in the outfield at the beginning of May, but it's like when I started playing first base. I'm starting from scratch," Asamura said. "I don't want to field out there, but I'm going to give it a shot, because I want to contribute.

"Since I'm not an outfielder, I figure anything I can get right is a bonus."

If that is a potential bonus, a real one came earlier this season when Asamura was able to play against his boyhood hero who returned to Japan this year to play with the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles--and wearing his old No. 32.

"It was a great experience, really fun," Asamura said.


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