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New-look Swallows embrace changes

by Jason Coskrey

It seems like everything about the Yakult Swallows is new these days.

“New Jingu. New Manager. New Swallows,” proclaims one Swallows advertisement near Jingu Stadium.

There couldn’t be a more fitting slogan.

Fans will notice an immediate change on the field with popular slugger Alex Ramirez having moved to the Yomiuri Giants in the offseason. Ramirez was Yakult’s best player in 2007, batting .343 with 29 home runs, 122 RBIs and a Central League-record 204 hits.

The team also lost hurler Seth Greisinger, who signed with the Giants after going 16-8 with a 2.48 ERA last season, and veteran southpaw Kazuhisa Ishii, who joined the Saitama Seibu Lions.

“It’s a little of the unknown,” said outfielder Aaron Guiel, who finished second in the CL with 35 home runs last year.

“We lost definitely two of our best players in Greisinger and Ramirez. We changed managers and in the interim we’ve changed personnel a little bit, where we’ve gotten a little bit younger and in their opinion faster.”

Don’t weep for these Swallows, though. Guiel is a powerful presence at the plate, Norichika Aoki is as close to a sure bet to hit .300 as one can get and Adam Riggs and Hiroyasu Tanaka should also produce.

Yakult brought in Daniel Rios, who went 22-5 and won the MVP award in the Korean Baseball Organization last year, to help soften the blow of Greisinger’s departure. And the team also drafted highly touted high school hurler Yoshinori Sato.

After losing three of their best players within weeks of each other, the Swallows have made adjustments and are feeling pretty confident about things.

“Our game has changed,” Guiel said. “Last year, we were a good offensive club and our pitching needed to get strengthened.

“This year, I think our pitching is a little bit better and we’re relying a little bit on the speed game. So we’re running a lot more.”

They will be running in a new-look Jingu Stadium, that among other changes, had the fences moved back 10 meters in the corners.

“It feels really big,” shortstop Shinya Miyamoto said.

The Swallows also have a new artificial turf to play on that includes dirt-colored turf in the infield.

“They needed something new,” Rakuten slugger Jose Fernandez said after hearing about the changes.

“The mound is different too,” Hanshin pitcher Yuya Ando told media before facing the Swallows at Jingu last Saturday. “It’s soft and it’s high.”

If that’s not enough of a transition, there are changes in the dugout as well.

Former Hokkaido Nippon Ham general manager Shigeru Takada takes the reins this season after Yakult icon Atsuya Furuta retired as both a player and manager.

“As far as treatment, he’s very similar to Furuta,” Guiel said of Takada.

“He stands back and analyzes players and kind of lets the players play. So the guys enjoy that part of it.”

A change of pace in the dugout could be just what the Swallows need and Takada has already begun to put his stamp on the team.

“From a strategy point of view, he’s a lot more aggressive,” Guiel said.

“He likes to run a lot. He likes to put pressure on the defense by running. I think that is the biggest difference. So far from what I’ve seen in the spring, that pressure on the basepaths has produced a lot of runs for us.”

With a number of young players thrust into important roles during a time of change in the franchise, Yakult will undoubtedly go through some growing pains. The Swallows veterans understand the adjustments will take time, and that some of their younger players will step right in and contribute while others will struggle.

“There’s so many factors,” Guiel said. “You can take 10 young kids and there are going to be 10 different personalities and they’re going to progress at 10 different speeds.

“So I think time is one thing that’s going to tell us how each guy is going to handle the pressure of playing at this level.

“When you deal with young players, it’s a little bit of a guessing game. It’s very hard to predict who’s going to step forward.”

Despite all the changes, one constant remains. Miyamoto, a 13-year veteran, is still leading the Swallows and providing a steadying presence during a time of transition.

“For a team like the Swallows with the blend that we have, with a lot of those young players mixed in with players like myself, Adam Riggs, Miyamoto and Aoki, they’re hoping that that’s a winning combination,” Guiel said.