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Serious Ochiai enjoys rare chance to joke around

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YOKOHAMA — Hiroshima Carp veteran Tomonori Maeda was returning to the dugout after fielding practice before the second game of the Nippon Professional Baseball All-Star Series on Friday at Yokohama Stadium when Chunichi Dragons manager Hiromitsu Ochiai decided it was time to have some fun.

Before long Maeda, who had his hat in his hand and glove tucked under his arm, was locked in a sinister game of fetch near the home dugout. Ochiai had a manic grin spread across his face as he had Maeda chasing balls left and right, often hitting a ball before Maeda had retrieved the last, for a few minutes as the Carp veteran begged for relief.

“Please, please,” a laughing Maeda said as he chased balls bare-handed while trying to hang on to his hat. “Stop. It’s too much.”

It was a side of the normally serious and stoic manager, at least in public, that isn’t usually seen.

“No,” Chunichi first baseman Tyrone Woods responded when asked if Ochiai was like that behind closed doors. “He’s just a little looser today. Normally he’s very serious. He’s a serious guy. I think he’s loose now because all the best players are here. I guessed that loosened him up a little bit.”

The Dragons will get to see a little more to their manger in the future as the team owner recently asked Ochiai to remain with the Nagoya-based club for several more years.

“That’s good,” Woods said. “He’s a nice manager. He pretty much just lets you play. When he sees you struggling, he tries to step in and tell you what you’re doing wrong. Overall I feel like he’s a good manager.”

With the success Ochiai has achieved, it’s little wonder the Dragons want him back. He led the team to the 2004 Japan Series in his first season in the dugout after a 79-56-3 regular season. He followed that with another 79-win season in ’05 before winning his second CL title in 2006 following an 87-54-5 year.

Ochiai got the Dragons over the hump last season, falling short of the CL pennant, but rebounding to win Chunichi’s first Japan Series title since 1954.

Woods was also subject to Ochiai’s whims during practice, taking groundballs from his manager before the game.

“I’m getting skinny,” Woods joked as he came off the field. “I’m working too much. I’m losing too much weight.”

Home run king: With only six home runs, Thursday’s home run derby probably didn’t live up to the fans’ expectations.

Ever a man of the people, “Big Daddy” came to the rescue in the series finale.

Yomiuri Giants slugger Alex Ramirez gave the crowd a show with five home runs in the first round and seven in the final round to win the home run title in the NPB All-Star Series’ second home run derby.

After going 0-for-7 on Thursday, Ramirez got off to a slow start again against Tohoku Rakuten’s Takeshi Yamasaki, who began the match with four homers, in the day’s first matchup.

Ramirez got hot late, hitting four home runs with two outs remaining, including the match-tying and match-winning homers with one out left, to dispatch Yamasaki.

Seibu’s G.G. Sato, who homered once in the first derby, joined Ramirez in the final by defeating Yokohama’s Shuichi Murata 2-0 in the second first-round match.

Ramirez led off the final with seven home runs, hitting three straight at one point, and took home the winner’s check worth ¥5 million when Sato could only muster a single homer in the final.

Reason for playing: While interleague play has taken away some of the novelty of league vs. league matchups, many of the All-Stars still enjoy mingling with friends and rivals that they don’t get to see much of during the regular season.

“It’s nice,” Softbank pitcher Toshiya Sugiuchi said. “I get the chance to talk to and see the Central League players who I don’t really get to see often.”

Others use the game as a measuring stick to see where they stack up against elite competition, while also looking for momentum going into the second half of the season.

“I’ve not been very good this season so I’d like to do well here,” Chiba Lotte Marines pitcher Yoshihisa Naruse said.

“I’d like to pitch as if they can’t hit my pitches even though they (the CL) know what’s coming.”

They may actually have known what was was coming as Naruse’s night didn’t go quite as planned. The Lotte hurler gave up eight runs — seven earned — in two innings of work during Friday’s contest.

Hinomaru: The Japan national baseball team was well represented during the two-game series. With the best Japanese baseball has to offer all in one place, the Olympic coaches got a brief preview of many team members during the series.

“A lot of the All-Stars will be going to Beijing,” Yokohama third baseman Shuichi Murata said. “So a lot of us here will be wearing the Hinomaru also. I think we will have a strong team in Beijing.”

“Hoshino Japan” member Yoshihisa Naruse agreed, adding that the All-Star game could be beneficial.

“Even though we play against the CL (normally), if you assume that’s it’s country vs. country, you can learn something,” the Lotte pitcher said. “As a matter of fact there are many different players from their respective teams here. So these teams are pretty good.”

Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this article.