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Aoki’s move to left field shows his commitment

by Kaz Nagatsuka

SAN DIEGO — Presumably, on the 28-man rosters of all 16 World Baseball Classic teams, some players are required to handle unaccustomed jobs while suiting up for their national team.

As far as Samurai Japan is concerned, it is Norichika Aoki, who has been put in left field defensively, because manager Tatsunori Hara and his coaches wanted this career .338 hitter’s bat in lineup.

Aoki, a center fielder for the Tokyo Yakult Swallows, has batted in the No. 3 spot and started in left field in each game of the 2009 WBC, and he’s lived up to the team’s expectations so far.

The 27-year-old left-handed hitter has batted .333 (5-for-15) with four RBIs for Team Japan, which grabbed a 6-0 shutout over powerhouse Cuba on Sunday.

As much as he has displayed his phenomenal batting ability, Aoki admitted he has had jitters about the defensive switch.

“I had almost never played in left field,” Aoki said during Japan’s workout at PETCO Park on Monday. “I’ve only done that in an exhibition game.”

When you cast a ballot for the NPB and MLB All-Star Games, you pick three outfielders regardless of their position. Infielders, of course, are selected based on their actual positions.

According to Aoki, there are clear differences in the way an outfielder plays left, center or right, such as how he positions himself for a line drive.

“I still don’t really know where to locate myself,” Aoki said. “Sometimes (center fielder Kosuke) Fukudome-san tells me to back up a bit or something during games.”

Aoki has even taken the infield in his career. He’s played second base in a regular-season game for the Swallows.

But it’s not comparable to wearing the uniform of the national team, he emphasized.

“Fielding (in left field) with a Japan uniform on, it’s a whole lot different in terms of one game’s significance,” said Aoki, who played for Team Japan in the 2006 WBC and at last year’s Beijing Olympics.

When the topic changed to his batting skills, Aoki, unlike when he was talking about his fielding, began speaking with more confidence.

Asked about his impression of Cuban fireballer Aroldis Chapman in Sunday’s game, Aoki replied that the 21-year-old southpaw wasn’t as great as advertised.

“Watching him from the bench, he surely looked sharp, but once standing in the box, I didn’t think about it all that much,” Aoki said. “Also, his breaking balls were biting early and it was easy to distinguish (between strikes and balls).”

Japan meets archrival South Korea again on Tuesday night, and Bong Jung Keun is going to take the mound as a starter. The former major league lefty held Japan to just three hits, allowing no runs in 5 1/3 innings in his team’s 1-0 win on March 9 at Tokyo Dome.

Aoki, a two-time Central League batting champion, said what makes Bong a good pitcher is his fastball, which actually moves slightly inside against left-handed batters.

Aoki noted that it’s a plus for Japan to have faced Bong recently and the defending champs will not be ending up with the same result this time around.

“It’s big that we’ve seen this guy already,” he said with a grin. “It won’t be a problem (to hit moving fastballs) if we are going to hit on speculation.”