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Uchikawa finally finds his feet in Yokohama

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Uchikawa finally finds his feet in Yokohama

by Jim Allen (Jul 8, 2008)

This time it might be the real thing.

When your career has had as many ups and downs as Central League batting leader Seiichi Uchikawa's, you don't take a lot for granted.

"What chances I have created for myself, I have turned around and squashed all by myself," Uchikawa told The Daily Yomiuri on Friday in Yokohama.

After a string of ill-defined and uninspired seasons, the 25-year-old appears to have found his feet in the batter's box and at a new position: first base.

The Yokohama BayStars' No. 1 draft pick out of Oita Technical High School in November 2000, Uchikawa was going to be the BayStars' second baseman of the future. When it looked like the job was his to lose in 2004, he lost it to players with less promise and ability because he could not stay healthy. Starting in 2005, Uchikawa was pushed into the outfield, which proved to be a wilderness for him.

"They told me that what set me apart was my batting, and that playing the outfield would help me expand as a hitter," said Uchikawa. "So I went, but it didn't matter. Infielder or outfielder, it has nothing to do with my hitting. Nothing I tried worked, so I can't blame playing the outfield, but it was alien to me.

"I started as an infielder. In the outfield, unless a ball is hit toward you, the game goes on without you. It [being in the outfield] didn't help me concentrate on my hitting."

What did help was the rude shock of being sent to the minors--and the realization that he was closer to being out of the game than on top of it.

"In the past, when I slumped I would come off the bench and they'd use me as a pinch-hitter, but this time last year, they sent me to the [Eastern League Shonan] Searex," he said.

"It made me think, 'If I keep going down this path, I'm not going to amount to anything. So I was ready for something new."

He found that through working with farm team coach Tomio Tashiro. The former Yokohama slugger watched Uchikawa hit for a while and suggested he try to make contact with the ball farther back than he was used to.

Tashiro wanted Uchikawa, a top-flight slugger in high school, to stop slapping at the ball and start smoking it.

Hitting .234 with one home run prior to his minor league exile, Uchikawa returned to the BayStars' batting order on Aug. 9, 2007, at Jingu Stadium, where he doubled twice and drove in five runs. He hit .300 with 13 doubles and six homers after rejoining the BayStars. In his first 12 games this season, Uchikawa was hitting the cover off the ball but manager Akihiko Oya had no place to play him.

"He asked me what I wanted to do," Uchikawa said. "I think most managers wouldn't ask. Because he's positive or open or because I'm selfish, I just said what was in my heart: I want to be in the infield."

Oya, who is famous for assigning players unorthodox roles, asked Uchikawa to practice at first base before an April 24 game against Yomiuri at Tokyo Dome. After pinch-hitting, Oya sent him out to play first.

The next night he was the starter at Yokohama Stadium and the game's hero with a triple, two singles and an RBI.

"It feels great to be moving forward again," he said. "To play at this level, in these beautiful parks, you want to make plays that are worthy of your surroundings. But for the longest time, I am afraid to say it but I was dragging the game through the mud."

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