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Nishioka, Morimoto spark ballclubs as leadoff hitters

by Jason Coskrey

SAPPORO — Chiba Lotte’s Tsuyoshi Nishioka and Nippon Ham’s Hichori Morimoto are two of the biggest stars in Japanese baseball, despite neither really hitting for a lot of power or driving in a lot of runs.

News photoShortstop Tsuyoshi Nishioka excels at getting on base and using his speed to create scoring opportunities for the Chiba Lotte Marines. His leadoff counterpart, Hokkaido Nippon Ham’s Hichori Morimoto, provides similar production for the reigning Japan Series champions.
KYODO PHOTO

What the opposing leadoff hitters excel at, however, is getting on base and making good things happen for their clubs when they get there.

Both finished the regular-season batting .300 and rank among the top five in the Pacific League in runs scored (Morimoto is first with 91 and Nishioka fifth with 76), stolen bases (Morimoto third with 31 and Nishioka fifth with 27) and often put their team in positions to score runs, making them the spark plugs for the two squads vying for the PL Climax Series title this week at Sapporo Dome.

Speed kills at the leadoff position and Nishioka’s has provided a spark for the Marines as they attempt to win their second Japan Series title in three seasons.

“I think it’s going to be a battle for us to win the championship,” Nishioka said.

Often using the swinging bunt to his advantage, the fleet-footed shortstop is always a threat to run out an infield hit and is adept at getting on base in a number of ways.

His speed alone would make him a decent leadoff man, but his patience at the plate makes him a little above average. Through Sunday, Nishioka has drawn three walks in Lotte’s five playoff games and was seventh in the PL in the regular season with 50, adding another element to a player whose main responsibility is getting on base.

Nishioka is a nightmare on the basepaths. Usually getting the green light from the dugout if he thinks he’s got a good lead, he’s almost become a low-risk way for the club to put a runner in scoring position and is a threat to score from first on any ball hit deep into the outfield.

Making him one of the driving forces behind an offense that finished second in the league in runs scored (629) despite ending the season 10th in home runs (107).

Nishioka is the catalyst for the Marines in the field as well. An excellent and versatile defensive player, he is one of the few players in Japanese baseball to win a Golden Glove at shortstop and be a Best Nine selection at second base in the same season, accomplishing the feat in 2005.

He had a solid regular season in the top spot in the Lotte order, batting .300 with three home runs, 40 RBIs and 76 runs scored, but has caught fire in the playoffs.

He picked up three hits and drove in two runs in Lotte’s first playoff game this year, a 8-4 win over Softbank that was special to the decorated shortstop.

“I was able to send a smile to both my parents who were watching from the stands,” Nishioka said.

He has continued to produce for the Marines, batting .473 in the playoffs with three RBIs and three stolen bases.

“Number one was on base three out of four times yesterday,” Nippon Ham manager Trey Hillman said Sunday, referring to Nishioka by his spot in the lineup before Game 2. “Obviously we want to change that.”

His improved play in the postseason has drawn comparisons to the way former Seibu Lions shortstop Kazuo Matsui has emerged for the Colorado Rockies in the MLB playoffs.

“When I watch Kazuo-san on TV it’s amazing,” Nishioka said.

Similarly, Morimoto has been the shot in the arm that has kept the Fighters energized all season. The 26-year-old has gradually improved and has posted career-highs in batting average (including the aforementioned .300), runs scored and RBIs in each of the past four seasons. He had three home runs and 44 RBIs in 2007.

With Tsuyoshi Shinjo retired, Morimoto has thrived in the spotlight for both his play and his crowd-pleasing antics. Morimoto inherited Shinjo’s number (1), position on the field (center) and his reputation as one of the flashiest players in the game. In fact, Shinjo himself was at Sapporo Dome to watch his successor spark a four-run inning with a two run double in the Fighters’ Game 1 win.

“Obviously you want your leadoff man to provide a spark,” Hillman said. “And obviously with his personality that adds a little bit to it. He just absolutely loves to play the game of baseball and loves doing it for the Fighters,” Hillman said. “I won’t deny it, he energizes this team and everyone in this dome.”

Nishioka and Morimoto will try to get their respective teams off to a fast start in Game 4 of the second stage of the PL Climax Series on Tuesday at 6 p.m. at Sapporo Dome.

“We finished first (in the regular season) so we certainly want to win this series and advance to the Japan Series,” Morimoto said.