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THE HOT CORNER: Young Birds still earning their wings

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THE HOT CORNER: Young Birds still earning their wings

by Jim Allen (May 8, 2008)

It's hard when the potential and the talent are there, but the wins aren't. On Saturday night, Tokyo Yakult's Kyohei Muranaka gave Swallows fans both a taste of the future and a reality check.

Taking a no-hit bid into the ninth-inning, Muranaka showed his promise. But in a painful finish, the 20-year-old right-hander ended up losing 5-0 to the Yomiuri Giants. The irony is that Muranaka's no-hit bid very likely cost the Swallows in the ninth inning.

Swallows manager Shigeru Takada's chose to leave his tired youngster in the game because of the no-hitter. In the most limited sense of winning or losing a single game in May, it was a mistake. But pennants aren't decided in May, and if Muranaka is going to be a better pitcher, he needs to learn from experience.

With the best command of his career, Muranaka was nearly untouchable for eight innings. He worked overtime to get past the middle of the Giants order and that jacked up his pitch count, but only two of the first 16 balls in play were hit hard.

With the possibility of a massive payoff--a no-hitter for Muranaka and a win for his team--Takada sent his nearly-spent pitcher to lead off the bottom of the eighth inning. Muranaka struck out and the inning ended with a Swallow perched on third. Had the pitcher already surrendered a hit, Takada would have used a pinch-hitter and a fresh arm. Instead, the Giants blew the game open.

"If he had won, it would have been a good lesson for him," Takada said the next day. "Instead, he just suffered."

Ironically, Muranaka was playing catch a few meters away from Takada and didn't appear to be suffering at all. Muranaka, who has not thrown a complete game since leaving high school, threw 137 pitches against the Giants.

"He's never thrown that many," Takada said. "You'd think he wouldn't be able to lift his arm today.

"Still, he has the stuff to suddenly become a big winner."

Of course, that is conditional upon the Swallows scoring more runs, something the team is unlikely to do--at least for a while.

Like Muranaka, several of the Swallows hitters are young but not yet finished products. Two-time batting champ Norichika Aoki just turned 26, second baseman Hiroyasu Tanaka will be 26 in two weeks. Left fielder Yasushi Iihara just turned 25, while third baseman Keizo Kawashima is 24.

Young players can grow rapidly, and the more athletic a player is, the more growth potential he has. Tanaka, the slowest of these four, led the Central League in triples last season. In six months, each of these guys could be several notches better.

The pitching staff is the same.

In addition to Muranaka, the Swallows have three other young arms with a decent shot at being quality starters: Yoshinori Sato, who's 18, Tatsuyoshi Masubuchi, 20, and Mikinori Kato, 23.

Sato is not yet ready for the CL, and Takada doesn't think Masubuchi, with his wicked side-arm fastball, is going to start kicking batters' butts for another year or so, but it is a heck of a future to look forward to.

Youth, however, does not guarantee growth. Sometimes a youngster will take a wrong turn, and there are a dozen ways a manager can stunt a player's development. What's needed is commitment and patience. And Takada, who built a quality pitching staff as Nippon Ham Fighters manager in the 1980s, is patient with a capital P.

An example is his treatment of surgically repaired reliever Hirotoshi Ishii. Although Ishii has recovered his velocity in the bullpen, Takada is in no hurry to rush the hard-throwing lefty.

"Until he gets his movement back, the only thing he's going to do on the first team is re-injure his arm," Takada said of Ishii, who has twice failed to come back from a 2006 injury. "When he's healthy, we'll use him."

Takada, who oversaw Nippon Ham's rise to power as general manager, came to Yakult expressly to help the kids achieve their utmost expression within the game.

When asked why he returned to managing at the age of 62, Takada said: "How can anyone not get excited about watching young players play and get better?"

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