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Silent assassin Nakajima making mark under cover

by Jason Coskrey

While Ichiro Suzuki and Shuichi Murata were dominating the headlines, Hiroyuki Nakajima was quietly racking up hits.

The Seibu Lions star is one of the main reasons Japan is moving on to the second round, and he might just be warming up.

“I’m getting more excited game in and game out,” Nakajima said before Japan’s rematch with South Korea on Monday. “But I always want to focus on the game at hand.”

Nakajima put together a solid first round in his WBC debut, going 4-for-8 (.500) with two RBIs and five walks in Japan’s three games.

“I’ve been able to hit with my timing and balance,” Nakajima said.

After burning South Korea with a 3-for-5 night at the plate, which included two RBIs, on Saturday, Nakajima felt so good he skipped batting practice during Japan’s workout on Sunday at Tokyo Dome.

“I only did fielding because I thought I was already in good shape and didn’t feel like I needed to fix anything about my batting,” Nakajima said.

His performance against the Koreans gave the world a chance to see what Seibu Lions fans have been enjoying on a regular basis lately.

“I didn’t particularly feel differently than I do in regular games” he said.

His efforts didn’t go unnoticed by his countrymen, with the fans of a popular sports show voting him the game’s MVP in a recent viewer poll.

“Really?” he said, reacting to the news. “I didn’t see the program until late but I’m extremely happy.”

The Lions selected Nakajima in the 2000 draft and the four-time All-Star is a career .298 hitter in eight seasons with the team.

Seibu slumped to its worst finish in decades in 2007 and things looked bleak for 2008 when the Lions’ top two hitters, Alex Cabrera and Kazuhiro Wada, left as free agents.

Nakajima responded with an MVP-caliber season, posting career-highs with a .331 batting average, .527 slugging percentage, .410 on base percentage (which also led the Pacific League) and 25 stolen bases. Nakajima also hit 21 home runs and had 81 RBIs in 2008 to help carry the team to the Japan Series title.

In August, Nakajima was a part of the Japan team that competed in the Beijing Olympics, batting .296 with five RBIs in nine game.

There aren’t many places where a player of Nakajima’s caliber can fly under the radar, but his Samurai Japan teammates are getting most of the attention at the WBC.

Ichiro commands the spotlight wherever he goes and Murata has homered his way into WBC stardom early on.

Then there are the other three major leaguers in the lineup, Kosuke Fukudome, Akinori Iwamura and Koji Johjima, making it easy for opposing teams to overlook the Seibu shortstop.

Although that may not last much longer.

Sandwiched between Ichiro and the always-dangerous Norichika Aoki, Nakajima has been a solid contributor at the No. 2 spot in manager Tatsunori Hara’s lineup.

“When a runner is on base, I think I have to take advantage of the chance, and when nobody is on base, I try to create a chance,” Nakajima said of batting second.

“But basically, I am trying to do whatever I can do in the batter’s box. Right now I am hitting with good balance.”

Nakajima and defending champion Japan resume the quest for a second consecutive WBC title in San Diego.

Japan and Korea advanced to the second round from Pool A and are widely expected to be joined by Pool B favorite Cuba, which is one win away from qualifying, and either Mexico or Australia.

“It makes me more excited to play against so many different countries,” Nakajima said. “I’m getting more and more psyched up.”