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Power numbers increasing in NPB this season

by Wayne Graczyk

Happy days are here again — or so it would appear — for the hitters in Japanese baseball. The ball is flying once more, as shown by the number of home runs being hit in the early going this season. No one is saying anything, but the long ball has apparently snuck back into the game here after two seasons of lackluster hitting, and you have to wonder if the baseball itself has not been changed back to the pre-2011 version. It is soaring like 2010.

In any event, “Going, going, gone!,” or in Japanese, “Haita, haita, home run,” is being called more often by radio and TV announcers at Central and Pacific League games this year. Here is the evidence:

* Home runs in general have been much more frequent. Take last weekend, for example. On April 6, there were 13 hit in six CL and PL games. The next day, there were 10 homers in five games (one rainout), and on April 7, there were 17 belted out in the five games played (another rainout).

* We are seeing opposite-field homers, something that has been pretty much non-existent in Japanese baseball since the NPB ball was changed after the 2010 season. Left-handed batters are hitting high flies that carry into the left-field stands, and righties are clearing the right-field walls like in the old days.

* Multi-homer games. Tony Blanco of the Yokohama BayStars hit three homers against the Tokyo Yakult Swallows at Jingu Stadium April 7, and Josh Whitesell of the Chiba Lotte Marines matched that the following night at Kleenex Stadium, home of the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, where the long ball had been scarce. Whitesell’s teammate Katsuya Kakunaka also connected for a bases-loaded shot in that game. Though he led the Pa League in batting last year, Kakunaka is not normally a home run threat, hitting only three in 2012.

* Other banjo-hitters are going deep as well. Small-of-stature middle infielders Yuichi Honda of the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks and Takehiro Ishikawa of Yokohama have already gone yard this season; Honda with a grand slam on Opening Day at spacious Fukuoka Yafuoku Dome. Last season Honda did not hit any homers; Ishikawa hit only one.

* Batting practice shots at Tokyo Dome are again denting the giant billboard ads high above the outfield stands, and it would not be surprising to see a couple of sluggers cash in and get the ¥1 million prize that goes to a player whose blast clearly hits one of the nine signs during a game.

* Chunichi Dragons first baseman Matt Clark hit the Tokyo Dome roof on April 6 with a towering fly that might have made the right-field stands but instead landed in the glove of Yomiuri Giants second baseman Ryota Wakiya, who reacted quickly to the course diversion of the ball. The Big Egg shell has been reached many times over the years, but I cannot recall seeing it in 2011 or 2012.

* Alex Ramirez’s 2,000th career hit in Japanese baseball was a solid line drive home run that might have been a double last season, but it sailed over the left-field fence at Jingu Stadium on April 6.

One other point: Last year’s CL and PL respective home run leaders, Wladimir Balentien of the Tokyo Yakult Swallows and Takeya Nakamura of the Saitama Seibu Lions, were injured and have not played as of Thursday.

The home run hitters did cool on the chilly nights of April 9 and 10. Despite a full slate of games each evening, only three four-baggers were hit on Tuesday and five on Wednesday, when the Giants and Hanshin Tigers played a 2011-2012-like pitcher’s game at Koshien Stadium. Neither team scored as the game ended in a 12-inning 0-0 tie. Still, it is a curious situation, and we will keep an eye on this as the season moves along.

Diamond Dust: Great piece by Robert Whiting in last Sunday’s edition of The Japan Times on the background of former Yomiuri Giants players Shigeo Nagashima and Hideki Matsui after the pair were named winners of the Japanese People’s Honor Award. Nagashima and Matsui are to be recognized at a retirement ceremony for Matsui at the May 5 Tokyo Dome game against the Hiroshima Carp.

Right after this was announced on April 1, tickets to that Golden Week Children’s Day holiday game were suddenly unavailable, and talk about a guaranteed sellout. Golden Week? Matsui retirement ceremony? Nagashima-san to appear? People’s Honor Award? They could sell a million tickets to this one. I’m glad I have a media pass.

Another former Giants player, the flamboyant Warren Cromartie, is spearheading a movement to get major league baseball returned to Montreal. Cro played for the Montreal Expos for seven seasons before embarking on a career of equal length in Japan. The 1989 Central League batting champion and MVP is playing the longshot MLB will want to return to the Quebec city in the near future after losing the Expos to Washington, D.C., in 2005.

Finally this week, recall our column of March 3 about Japanese and foreign players over the years being officially registered in Japanese baseball by their first names, a nickname or a set of initials? I mentioned pitcher Brad Bergesen, a first-year player with the Chunichi Dragons this season, is being called by his proper first name, “Bradley.”

Now we know the reason for that. It seems the Dragons team management decided his last name in Japanese would come out something like “Ba-ga-sen,” and it sounds too much like “bargain sale.” The player says he doesn’t mind but adds, “The only person who calls me Bradley is my mother.”

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Contact Wayne Graczyk at: Wayne@JapanBall.com