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Slow-burner Itoi warming up nicely

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Because of his rare talent and physical ability, Yoshio Itoi had been tipped to be a guy who could make a big impact on the top team of the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters for the last couple of years.

The ballclub’s faith has paid off in the 2009 season, and he is, if not rapidly, gradually shooting to stardom.

Itoi has played in the majority of the team’s games so far (48 of 55), and lived up to the high expectations of manager Masataka Nashida and Hokkaido Nippon Ham. Although he has yet to reach the regulation number of at-bats, he has batted .331 with 29 runs batted in and six home runs through Sunday’s games.

Nashida put him in the No. 2 spot in the lineup on Opening Day as a starting center fielder over Hichori Morimoto, who had been plagued with a lower back injury since spring training.

He got off to a difficult start offensively earlier in the season, but eventually adjusted himself to the ball in the ichigun, or the top squad, beginning to utilize the physical strength he has been blessed with, which makes him a so-called “five-tool player.”

Nashida said that the strike zone had looked like the size of a tatami for Itoi, meaning he was chasing too many bad pitches at bat.

But the soft-spoken skipper now thinks that Itoi has matured a lot in the batter’s box.

“He’s got sharper eyes,” Nashida said, before a recent game at Tokyo Dome against the Yomiuri Giants. “He has managed to come up with hits out of bad pitches, but you can’t hit consistently like that. He’s a lot surer now.”

Itoi was drafted as a pitcher by the Fighters out of Kinki University. He had arm strength that enabled him to toss 150-kph fastballs. But he lacked commanding ball control and breaking balls, and that kept him away from the mound in the top league for the first two years.

He was converted into an outfielder in the spring of 2006. As Nashida put it, Itoi struggled on ball-strike distinctions at bat and was used more as a pinch runner or a fielding substitution late in games.

But Itoi is now one of the fastest growing players on the team, and Nashida has even ventured to place him in the core of the lineup lately.

Itoi, who is tied for 10th with a .333 batting average in the interleague, batted fifth against the Hiroshima Carp for the first time on June 3, going 3-for-3 with four RBIs and a three-run homer at Sapporo Dome. Also on Thursday, he sat in the No. 3 spot instead of the injured Atsunori Inaba, and was 3-for-5 with an RBI against the Yokohama BayStars, again at home.

“I’m certainly aware of the batting orders, but I just tried to play my game,” an inarticulate Itoi told reporters after the BayStars game at Sapporo Dome.

As usual, the Fighters, the current front runner in the Pacific League, are competing along with nagging injuries.

But such a versatile presence as Itoi gives Nashida and his coaching staff reassurance for the remainder of the campaign.

“He can hit long balls and is quick as well. I expect him to get on bases as much as he can,” Nashida said.