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Dragons hoping Ochoa’s lucky No. 4 can bring them success

by Wayne Graczyk

The Chunichi Dragons have won the Central League pennant four times in the past 30 years, and each time the club had a strong foreign player who wore the uniform No. 4 and contributed greatly to the team’s championship seasons.

In 1974, the Dragons won with outfielder Gene Martin, and in 1982 it was third baseman Ken Macha, currently the manager of the Oakland Athletics, who helped Chunichi into the Japan Series. In 1988, outfielder Gary Rajsich was a key slugger in the Dragons pennant-winning lineup and, in 1999, infielder Leo Gomez batted cleanup and led the offense into the post-season.

Freshman manager Hiromitsu Ochiai made sure his Dragons went into the 2004 season with a powerful gaikokujin displaying the No. 4 on his back. Ochiai told centerfielder Alex Ochoa to switch from the No. 22 he wore last year because “the No. 4 is more suitable” for non-Japanese.

In addition to donning that numeral, Ochoa became the No. 4 hitter (moving up a notch from the fifth slot) in Chunichi’s lineup when the regular cleanup man, rightfielder Kosuke Fukudome, left the club to join the Nagashima Japan Olympic team in Athens at the beginning of August. Ochoa performed so well, Ochiai left the American in that spot in the lineup, at least temporarily, after Fukudome returned to action in Nagoya Aug. 27.

The Dragons have led the Central League most of the year and, through games of Aug. 30, Alex who goes by his first name in Japan, was among CL leaders, batting .313 with 20 home runs and 79 runs batted in. Moreover, some of his best performances of the year have been against the Yomiuri Giants, preseason favorites to win the Central division flag in 2004. Ochoa’s batting average in 22 games vs. the Kyojin is an even .400, and he displayed early-season heroics by belting a come-from-behind “sayonara” home run to beat Yomiuri in a game at Nagoya Dome on April 7. Six days later, at Tokyo Dome, he hit for the cycle against the Giants, duplicating a feat he accomplished in the major leagues on July 3, 1996, while playing for the New York Mets against the Philadelphia Phillies.

Alex points out, however, he tries just as hard against the other four CL teams, and it’s just by chance he’s done exceptionally well against Tokyo.

“Playing the Giants here is like playing the Yankees (in the majors). You’re playing a good team and you want to do well. But it’s more of a coincidence I’ve done real good against them. I just try to keep a tempo and go out and do a good job every day, no matter who we’re playing. Sometimes it works out better against one team than another, and this year it just happens to be the Giants,” he said.

“I guess you get a little more pumped up, though, against the Giants and Tigers” he admitted. “Because you’re always playing in front of 40,000 or 50,000 fans, and there’s more electricity in the ballpark, but again, I’m trying to do the same job day-in and day-out and stay as consistent as possible to make for a good season.”

In March of 2003, the Dragons decided to obtain Ochoa, then 30 and a big league journeyman who had made stops with the Mets and in Minnesota, Cincinnati, Colorado, Anaheim and Milwaukee. That acquisition came after Kevin Millar, another big leaguer who had agreed to play for Nagoya, suddenly backed out on his word and signed instead with the Boston Red Sox.

Chunichi is now obviously happy they got Alex instead of Kevin. Through Aug. 30, Chunichi enjoyed a five-game lead over the Yakult Swallows and the Giants in the Central League pennant race, but Alex does not point to any one specific reason why the Dragons are on top this year.

“I guess it’s a combination of the new manager and the fact we’ve just generally played better than last year,” he said. Chunichi finished in second place in 2003, 14 1/2 games behind the CL champ Hanshin Tigers.

As for being chosen to bat in the prestigious cleanup position after Fukudome left for Greece, Ochoa takes a nonchalant attitude. “When Fukudome was about to go to Athens, they told me I would be hitting fourth, so I just said ‘Fine.’ I don’t put emphasis on batting fourth. I have to do my job whether I’m hitting fourth or fifth, or first, second, third or sixth, for that matter. I know others around me (play up the cleanup role), and they can think what they want.”

He has made every start for Chunichi this year and, for the full 140-game season, his current power statistics projection would see him end up with about 26 homers and 104 RBIs. Alex thinks those would be satisfying numbers but the “pace” thing is often misleading.

“I might hit 10 home runs next week, or I might not hit any, so I don’t pay any attention to a pace. My emphasis is on having a good season and helping the team win,” he insisted.

After each game, Ochoa e-mails his parents, brother, sister and mother-in-law, and his wife when she’s not in Japan, with a report on his and the team’s performance. Obviously, he has sent a lot of happy e-mails this season. His folks are in Florida, but his father and mother visited here in August, and he hopes to bring them back again next month.

“I’d like to bring them back for the Japan Series,” he said.

Good chance. After all, the Dragons once again have a potent foreign player wearing that uniform No. 4.