Since his rookie year, Saitama Seibu Lions catcher Ginjiro Sumitani has suffered an identity crisis behind the mask.
Not surprising, given the fact that Sumitani came right out of high school in 2006 and was given the chance to start the season on the first team. But he eventually got kicked to the curb, playing just 54 games.
He played in only 28 games the next season and just 46 in 2008.
The knock on him was how he called games, but he was the first rookie in 51 years of Nippon Professional Baseball to go straight from prep school to an Opening Day spot behind the plate. He really didn't get the opportunity to mature and develop at the position, and his bat hasn't really been first-team quality--he was a career .193 hitter coming into this season.
But the sixth-year catcher has been forced to find an identity--for better or worse--with the offseason departure of longtime catcher Toru Hosokawa.
The ball is literally in his hands.
"Last year we finished second and I don't want to have to hear people saying, 'They're not as good now that Hosokawa is gone,'" Sumitani said recently.
"I'm just focused on figuring out how I can help the team try to get victories."
Sumitani had a lot to figure out after making a splash early on in '06.
He threw out nearly 50 percent of runners in the exhibition season. He formed one of the youngest winning batteries in NPB history on March 26, when at 18 he and 19-year-old Hideaki Wakui beat the Orix Buffaloes. Three days later, he belted two homers against the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks in Kitakyushu.
But he was sent to the farm in May, batting .160 with two home runs, and told to make some changes in his game.
"Well, I haven't really changed my approach as much as I've gone up against a lot of the batters over the years and now I'm starting to understand what they're about," said Sumitani, who added the biggest change is that he's comfortable dealing with game situations.
"I've been able to calm down and play with more poise. I wasn't exactly nervous, but I'm able to pay more attention to what's going on around me. When I was 18, I was just focused on what pitches to call, and wasn't as aware of what other guys were doing.
"I wasn't able to give direction to the infielders and things like that. I'm able to do that now."
Even with his improved direction, the Lions have struggled to get off the field at times, and Sumitani takes a lot of responsibility.
"Sometimes, we get hit hard and I want to cut down on those instances," he said. "It's impossible to eliminate all of those over the course of the season, but it's a matter how much you can cut down on that and win games that makes a difference in the end.
"When the pitchers aren't at their best and the lineup isn't hitting runs, if we can keep even one extra run off the board, it can impact whether or not we win the game," Sumitani said. "If we just keep the games close, we can have a chance to win."
His bat is starting to come around, too. Sumitani, who turns 24 on July 19, had his average up to .250 and has a team-high 15 sacrifice hits heading into Friday's games, helping produce on a team that is second in the Pacific League in runs scored.
Sumitani said he is winning personally because he is finally a regular fixture in the lineup. But team victories are his sole focus.
"Playing every day is the best part of the job for me now, and next I want to focus on winning games."