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Watanabe tames PL in first season at helm

by Jason Coskrey

Earlier this season Seibu Lions second baseman Yasuyuki Kataoka donned a Spiderman mask and entertained the crowd before his hero interview after hitting a “sayonara” home run off Hokkaido Nippon Ham’s Yu Darvish.

It’s the type of thing one wouldn’t expect to see from a Seibu player, and first-year manager Hisanobu Watanabe probably wouldn’t have it any other way.

One of four new managers in Japanese baseball this season, Watanabe has set the standard for the new blood in the dugouts around the NPB.

He’s also set a good example as the entire Pacific League Climax Series will feature teams with new managers.

This season, the ex-Lions pitcher, who was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated on Oct. 31, 1994, has guided the Lions to the best record in the Pa League and the club’s first PL title since 2004.

Watanabe took over a team that finished fifth in 2007, lost its two best players, sluggers Alex Cabrera and Kazuhiro Wada, and was coming off its worst season in 26 years.

In one season, the Kobukuro (popular singing group)-loving manager has headed a massive turnaround behind an offensive attack that, through Thursday’s games, led Japanese baseball in runs (712) and home runs (197) and was tied for second in batting average (.270).

“My players worked very hard over the past season,” Watanabe said after clinching the PL title at Seibu Dome on Sept. 26. “We had some down times but the players improved game by game. I’m proud of my players and I will never forget this championship.”

One of the first things he did was do away with Seibu’s notoriously stern nature in order to create a looser atmosphere for his players. The gamble paid off as star players such as Kataoka, Hiroyuki Nakajima and Takeya Nakamura and others have thrived.

A popular tale this season involves an unnamed player who made a crucial mistake in the Lions’ season-opening loss to the Orix Buffaloes. Head coach Yukinobu Kuroe set out to scold the player after the game but was stopped by the rookie manager.

“This year we are not making that kind of team,” Watanabe told Sports Nippon, recalling the memory.

The Fighters also broke in a new skipper this year. The two-time defending PL champions replaced Trey Hillman, who left to manager the Kansas City Royals, with Masataka Nashida and again find themselves in the playoffs.

The Fighters have had their share of ups and downs under Nashida but are in position to compete for their third consecutive PL Climax Series title.

Nashida managed an offensive juggernaut at his previous stop (with the Kintentsu Buffaloes, where he won the ’01 PL pennant) but was unable to solve Nippon Ham’s offensive woes in his first season in Sapporo.

The Fighters are currently last in the PL in both runs (533) and home runs (82). Nippon Ham also has the league’s lowest team batting average (.255).

Nashida’s men rallied to make a statement in their season finale, however, with a 28-hit, 17-0 rout of the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles on Wednesday night.

Rounding out the PL Climax Series field are the Orix Buffaloes, who also have a new manager. Daijiro Oishi began the season as the team’s head coach before becoming the manager after Terry Collins’ sudden departure on May 21.

After a rocky start, Oishi is enjoying a successful run with Orix. The team is 54-40-1, including a 28-18 mark since the All-Star break, since Oishi took over for Collins. He has guided the Buffaloes to a surprising second-place finish.

Oishi and Nashida will match wits in the first stage of the Climax Series for the right to face Watanabe’s Lions in the second stage.

The manager who wins the Climax Series title will earn the chance to become the first manager to win the Japan Series in his first season with his club.

Yomiuri Giants manager Tatsunori Hara, who did not have to manage in the Climax Series, which was introduced in the Central League last season, achieved the feat in 2002.

Things weren’t as rosy at Jingu Stadium in Shigeru Takada’s first year at the helm.

The Swallows and Takada promised a “Dynamic & Dramatic” brand of baseball at the start of the season. Takada delivered early on, engineering an opening series sweep of the Giants, but ultimately wasn’t able to skipper Yakult out of the B class.

Unlike Watanabe and Seibu, Takada wasn’t able to overcome the loss of the team’s two best players, the power-hitting Alex Ramirez and pitcher Seth Greisinger.

Through Thursday, the Swallows are 61-71 and on course for a fifth-place finish in the Central League.