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Koike filling in blanks for Chunichi

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Koike filling in blanks for Chunichi

by John E. Gibson (Jul 14, 2011)

Masaaki Koike said he has changed his batting stance. His recent success has changed his standing with the Chunichi Dragons.

Koike, who has been a part-time player for all but one of his 12-plus seasons in Japan pro baseball, put together a pair of highlight moments in the past month that have helped earn him a regular place in the lineup every day recently.

His June 19 pinch-hit home run in the 10th inning lifted Chunichi to a 2-1 victory over the Orix Buffaloes in the final interleague game. The 31-year-old also hit a grand slam last week to fire up a sluggish Chunichi lineup in a 5-3 win over the Hanshin Tigers in which the Dragons were down by three early.

He had two more hits in Wednesday night's 6-5 loss to the Tokyo Yakult Swallows that raised his average to .381.

Big hits have certainly pushed him into the limelight and earned him additional at-bats, but his biggest impact has been as a versatile utility man who gives the Dragons options to plug the holes the Central League's second-place team has seen in its lineup.

"It's a lot to do and I have a lot of preparation, but it's my job," he said Tuesday at Jingu Stadium

Koike has seen time as a pinch-hitter, first baseman and outfielder, and began getting playing time this season as a late-inning defensive replacement.

"I have a lot of roles on the team and every day is different," he said. "And we have a lot of young players who are putting up good numbers and I want to make it a challenge for them.

"I know I have to produce or I won't be in the lineup, so the motivation is definitely there."

The sixth-round draft pick by the Yokohama BayStars in 1998 is a career .252 hitter who said getting his legs into shape and making an adjustment to his approach at the plate have made him a more effective hitter this season.

He has four homers in 63 at-bats and is hitting .390 with 10 RBIs and a .683 slugging percentage the past two weeks.

"When I was on the farm team, I did a lot of running, and I also made some changes in my batting form that have led to success," said Koike, whom Chunichi acquired in a trade from Yokohama for left-hander Yuya Ishii on June 16, 2008.

"I used to stand flatter on my feet, but now I'm up on the balls of my feet more and leaning forward."

Like many reserves, Koike looks forward to his playing time, which is not guaranteed every day. But as his hot hitting has him steadily becoming a fixture in an unsteady lineup, he said his preparation won't change.

"I get ready as if I'm going to be in the lineup every time I come to the park," he said. "If I'm not starting, I always stay in the game mentally and stay focused.

"As a pinch-hitter, it's that lone at-bat, so I really watch the pitchers and get some practice swings in to stay ready," said Koike, whose strong arm in the outfield has been widely overlooked because of his accomplishments at the plate. The Kanagawa native said just being part of a winning effort is his ultimate goal.

"The biggest thing is to contribute to a victory," said Koike. "It doesn't matter what I do as an individual, winning is the thing. And if I happen to do well in a victory, that gets me going for the next opportunity."

The Dragons are third in the CL in runs scored, in part because players such as Tony Blanco, who won the home run crown in 2009, and offseason acquisition Joel Guzman, have been banished to the farm team because of lack of production. That has given Koike more opportunities to enjoy some time in the sun.

He might just be a temporary fix for the defending CL champions, but his outlook could supply them with long-lasting power.

"I'm really having fun playing," he said.

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