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THE HOT CORNER: Watanabe gives Lions new twist

by Jim Allen (Jun 30, 2011)

Give the manager of an underachieving team a few days of peace and quiet and he's bound to think of ways to shake things up.

When the Saitama Seibu Lions emerged from their four-day break after interleague play in fourth place and five games under .500, it was clear that manager Hisanobu Watanabe had been wearing his thinking cap.

For the start of Seibu's four-game series against the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles on Friday, Watanabe batted 20-year-old Hideto Asamura in the leadoff spot instead of Yasuyuki Kataoka, while rookie Kazuhisa Makita was installed as closer.

Watanabe batted Asamura first for the best possible reason: He gets on base.

"He had the highest on-base percentage," Watanabe told The Hot Corner on Saturday at Seibu Dome.

Asamura's OBP is actually second on the team. Center fielder Takumi Kuriyama leads with .383, compared with Asamura's .354, but Kuriyama is now a middle-of-the-order RBI man.

The move to the top spot is just another adjustment for Asamura, a shortstop who opened the season at first base and began playing left field during interleague.

Although he began the season red hot, Asamura's batting average has dwindled. He has, however, been drawing more walks since the final week of interleague.

"My numbers have reflected my attitude more than my physical condition," he said. "I realized I needed to do more, and I think I am moving in the right direction."

On Friday, Asamura started 0-for-2 at the plate, but kick-started things in the field. Although a novice in left field, he put his shortstop's arm to good use, ending the Eagles' fourth inning by throwing out a runner at the plate. Asamura went on to draw a walk and get three hits--the third a three-run sayonara home run in the ninth.

He admitted that batting first brings added responsibility.

"You can feel it," Asamura said. "But I try not to worry about it. I just want to approach these at-bats the same way I do when batting sixth or seventh.

"I am not actually the leadoff hitter. I just want to learn from Kataoka and [No. 3 hitter Hiroyuki] Nakajima and apply what lessons I can toward helping the team, wherever I happen to bat in the order."

In reference to his clutch defense, Asamura said it was just one of many positive experiences so far in his unconventional first season as a regular.

"He's still young. I think it's good that he's experiencing a wide variety of things," said Watanabe, who is eager to give Asamura time at second or short.

"I haven't used him there [this season], but I will when I have the opportunity. We just haven't had that kind of breathing room. If we get on a roll, that's different, but right now it's a case of we win, we lose, we win, we lose."

Despite Friday's victory, Seibu's stuttering progress continued through Monday, with the Lions and Eagles taking turns winning to draw the series 2-2.

After a drubbing on Saturday, Makita debuted in his new role on Sunday, when he earned the save in Seibu's 5-4 victory.

"Compared to changing a player's spot in the order, it is harder to take a starter out of the rotation and make him the closer," said Watanabe, a former pitcher.

In 1985, Watanabe began his second pro season in the Lions rotation. After four impressive starts, he was rushed to the bullpen to take over from injured closer Shigekazu Mori.

"Starting is easier--you only have to pitch once a week with five or six days off--but I loved closing," he said. "I really enjoyed the rush you get when the fans are calling for you as you enter."

Although Watanabe still sees Makita as a starter, the skipper believes moving him to the bullpen will provide both a welcome change of scenery and some valuable experience.

The submarine right-hander had a 2.85 ERA in his 10 starts. But because the Lions had only managed to score 1.82 runs per nine innings when he was the pitcher of record, his record was just 2-4.

"He's had some tough luck so far," Watanabe said. "He relieved as an amateur, in university and corporate league ball, so I know he can handle this. And because he's a rookie, he is more flexible.

"I was kind of like that. I did it when I was 19, and I really didn't know enough to be scared."


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