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THE HOT CORNER: Hara brings the pieces together

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THE HOT CORNER: Hara brings the pieces together

by Jim Allen (Oct 9, 2008)

Whether or not the Giants finish first, there is no denying their tremendous fight this season. Thirteen games back on July 8, the Giants have showed their mettle.

Heading into Wednesday night's final scheduled clash, the Tigers had gone 30-33-2 after July 8, the Giants 42-19-1.

Yomiuri's philosophy towards its baseball team has always been simple: just win. And this year, manager Tatsunori Hara's Giants are doing just that. Given the talent assembled over the winter, it seemed unlikely any club could have given the Giants much trouble--but it has been that kind of season.

The Saitama Seibu Lions lost two of their best hitters and had a mediocre year from their biggest pitching star--and ran away with the Pacific League. The Orix Buffaloes lost their best pitcher in the preseason and went into the spring with an overmatched offense and a corral of promising but inexperienced pitchers. Yet, the Buffaloes youngsters gelled on the mound and at the plate, overcame a slow start and trotted into the postseason.

The Giants held onto their key players from their 2007 championship squad and added Seth Greisinger, Alex Ramirez and Marc Kroon. It looked like the Central League would be a cakewalk--things just didn't work out that way.

Left-handed starting pitcher Hisanori Takahashi reverted to mediocre form after a career-best 14-4 season in 2007. Ace Koji Uehara couldn't get anyone out. Shortstop Tomohiro Nioka was hurt, first baseman Lee Seung Yeop was hurt, third baseman Michihiro Ogasawara was hurt and right fielder Yoshinobu Takahashi, the club's most productive hitter in 2007, was hurt.

Ogasawara stayed in the lineup but was hitting .241 on May 3. At that point, Nioka, Lee and Yoshinobu Takahashi had combined for a .199 average with eight homers in 166 at-bats. Captain Shinnosuke Abe was not hurt but was slumping badly, hitting .186 with a few walks but two homers.

Yet, the Giants were just three games under .500. On May 3, Tetsuya Utsumi had one of his best games of the season as Tokyo Yakult's Kyohei Muranaka threw 8-1/3 perfect innings. The Giants, however, rebounded with five runs in the ninth for a 5-0 victory.

Despite all the things that could and did go wrong this spring, the Giants remained on an even keel.

Hayato Sakamoto, a 19-year-old second baseman, was rushed from the minor league spring camp to play with the big boys when the first team began running short of bodies. Outfielder Tomoya Inzen, who was on the club's developmental roster, did the same. Each made the most of his chances. When Nioka was felled on Opening Day, Sakamoto became the starting shortstop. Inzen won an NPB contract with his electric preseason play and was the hero in several games for the big club.

Outfielder Yoshiyuki Kamei, who had shown extreme success in the Eastern League, demonstrated that fire in the spring and was also an early-season hero.

Hara's great skill is promoting excellent young players and finding ways to get everyone on the roster involved. If you succeed on the farm, you're going to get a chance on the CL roster. If you're on Hara's team, you're going to play.

Prior to Hara, the Giants were all about winning or losing with name players: Unheralded players who failed in minimal trials in the CL were unlikely to get more chances. The current team spirit took Ramirez by surprise.

"You get the feeling from the outside that the team's not working together," Ramirez said. "I'm really happy to find it's not like that.

"The No. 1 factor in this organization is the pressure from everywhere to be the champions. But what really makes me happy to see is that we have fun. That's important. We've got to enjoy."

With the club flailing and the Tigers leading the world, it would have been easy to crack. Instead of loading all the pressure on his veterans, Hara showed no fear of losing with his kids in September's crucial games.

Because Hara has kept faith with his entire team, the whole roster has helped shoulder what could have been an extreme burden on the team's big names. Because of that, the Giants have become the power many predicted over the winter.

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