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Lotte's Okada finds his niche

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Lotte's Okada finds his niche

by Jim Allen (Aug 17, 2011)

Although Yoshifumi Okada has a history of being the odd man out, the Marines center fielder has shown a knack for getting where he wants to go.

The first Chiba Lotte player to make the roster after joining as a developmental player, Okada has thrived at the top part of the Marines order this year, where he has scored 50 runs, is fourth in the Pacific League in steals with 21 and second with 28 infield hits.

Although his game is all about speed, the 27-year-old Okada said the infield hits are purely accidental.

"I'm up there trying to hit line drives," he told The Daily Yomiuri on Tuesday afternoon at QVC Marine Field. "Those [the infield hits] happen when I miss-hit the ball. When I do that, it's like, 'Now I've had it,' and all I can do is try and get down the line as fast as I can."

It should be no surprise that Okada is doing well when forced to rely on Plan B. After all, his life in baseball has had perhaps more downs than ups.

When a knee injury as a Nippon University freshman in 2003 left him unable to play, he quit school. The following year, after Okada recovered, he began playing for a club team in his native Tochigi Prefecture.

In the autumn of 2008, the Marines named the captain of the successful All Ashikaga Club team as their sixth pick in the developmental phase of the draft.

"I've always had confidence in my game, in being able to use my speed," he said. "Being drafted as a developmental player just meant I would get a chance. It didn't matter that I wasn't a top pick.

"Had I been drafted earlier, I would still have had to prove myself."

When given a shot at a starting outfield job last summer, Okada floundered. He finished his first PL season in batting .176. In the postseason, however, an injury to fellow outfielder Shoitsu Omatsu saw Okada start the last six Japan Series games. He had three hits and two RBIs in Game 7. His 12th-inning triple drove in the Series' final run and helped the Marines clinch the title.

"That was big, and I was nervous, but I did a pretty good job of treating those like ordinary games," Okada said.

This spring, manager Norifumi Nishimura handed the speedster the center field job, and Okada has added 100 points to his batting average from a year ago.

"Knowing you're going to play is everything," he said. "Last season, I felt pressure to hit in every at-bat. I was swinging at everything. This year, I've been taking a lot of those pitches. That's the biggest difference."

Nishimura said Okada became bigger after speedster Takashi Ogino went out with injury on May 13.

"He and Ogino are similar players, fast guys who can hit and play defense," Nishimura said. "We didn't skip a beat because of him. You can't win with speed alone, but he gives us that weapon."

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