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Nakajima, Sakamoto possess similar skills

by Kaz Nagatsuka

TOKOROZAWA, Saitama Pref. — While the Yomiuri Giants and Seibu Lions were tied at one apiece entering Tuesday’s game, and playing merciless, hard-nosed baseball in the ongoing Japan Series, there are two young men who appear to be enjoying this prestigious stage.

One of them is Seibu shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima, who has been hot in the postseason and hit the game-winning home run in the Lions’ 2-1 win in Game 1.

The 26-year-old is making a big impact for the Pacific League club, not just with his stats but also with his shining, carefree smile despite the massive pressure of hitting in the No. 3 spot in the lineup.

For instance, the native of Hyogo Prefecture has hit a homer in five games (interleague and Japan Series meetings) this year against the Kyojin, and his team has won in four of them.

Many talented players make a living in professional baseball, but the ones who possess mental toughness along with physical abilities are rare. Nakajima is also one of the few spiritually blessed players in Nippon Professional Baseball.

“I didn’t care which way it’d go. I was just trying to focus in the box,” Nakajima said of his homer in Game 1.

And then, he beamed a big smile to summarize the game.

“It was fun.”

Coincidentally, Yomiuri also has a similar player at the same position, Hayato Sakamoto, who has comparable talent. The 19-year-old phenom also fascinates fans with his invigorating smile as much as for his blood-stirring, energetic performance on the field.

The Giants seem to be more serious and some of them are even more mournful than the young, happy-go-lucky Lions. But the second-year Sakamoto, who is one of the three Giants who have played in all the team’s games along with Michihiro Ogasawara and Alex Ramirez this year, is artlessly and innocently hopping around the field.

Unlike Nakajima, Sakamoto has struggled offensively in the playoffs, going 3-for-15 entering Tuesday’s third game of the Japan Series. Yet prior to Game 3, this kid didn’t put his head down; instead, he took fielding practice and exhibited his flexible defense and strong arm.

Nakajima and Sakamoto also have something in common: They selected the same theme song for when they enter the batter’s box at their own home fields. The song is titled “Kiseki” of the Japanese band GReeeeN.

So in the first two games at Tokyo Dome, the song was meant for Sakamoto, but now that the series switched to Seibu Dome it belongs to Nakajima.

Red visits Blue: For Game 3, Urawa Reds and Japan national team star defender Marcus Tulio Tanaka took the mound to throw the ceremonial first pitch.

Wearing a blue Lions jersey with his “No. 4″ on the back and cap, Tulio jokingly shook his head and tossed a slow, arced ball as his long hair flew in all directions.

Too far and too cold to visit?: On Tuesday, there were numerous empty seats at Seibu Dome despite the fact that it was an NPB championship series game. Although they were held on the weekend, Games 1 and 2 were packed with fans at Tokyo Dome.

At Seibu Dome, however, it’s different, and maybe it’s because the location of the stadium is not as accessible as other ballparks.

Seibu Dome is about 30 km from the center of Tokyo and most fans have to change trains a couple of times or more to get to it.

Also, the area gets chilly at this time of the year, particularly at night, In addition, maybe because it’s built in the middle of woods and lakes and was held one day after a three-day weekend made people hesitate to come to the stadium.

Ochiai signs contract

NAGOYA (Kyodo) Chunichi Dragons manager Hiromitsu Ochiai signed a three-year contract through the 2011 season with the Central League club Tuesday.

The three-year deal extends Ochiai’s tenure to eight years, passing six years by Kaname Yonamine in 1972-77 and Senichi Hoshino in 1996-2001, his second stint as Chunichi manager.

Hoshino also managed Chunichi in 1987-1991.

This year, Chunichi finished third in the regular season and lost to the first-place Yomiuri Giants in the second stage of the CL Climax Series playoffs.

“I’m thinking about having young players compete for spots in the regular lineup in the coming seasons,” Ochiai said.

Ochiai guided Chunichi to the league titles in 2004 and 2006 and to its first Japan Series championship crown in 53 years in 2007.

“There were many injured players this past season, but he managed the team well. I believe our club will win the Japan Series again in the next three years,” Dragons owner Bungo Shirai said.

The contract is worth an estimated ¥150 million a year, unchanged from 2008, plus incentives.