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Yamasaki’s clutch play, veteran wisdom benefit Eagles

by Kaz Nagatsuka

At age 40, Takeshi Yamasaki is enjoying the career-defining phase of his life as a ballplayer.

Though the team suffered a painful walk-off loss to the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters in Wednesday’s Game 1 of the Pacific League Climax Series second stage, as far as the veteran slugger is concerned, he is nearly red hot.

Yamasaki was 4-for-12 with two home runs and seven RBIs in three games in this postseason entering Thursday’s Game 2.

His seventh-inning three-run blast gave the Eagles a 6-1 lead and he might have been one of the game’s heroes if they had managed to preserve their lead and picked up a win.

Yamasaki, who was second in both homers (39) and RBIs (107) in the PL this season, isn’t valuable with just his bat at this stage of the season. He displays enormous courage and provides inspirational leadership for the relatively young team.

After Game 1, in which Rakuten blew a five-run lead in the bottom of the ninth and lost it on a Terrmel Sledge grand slam off closer Kazuo Fukumori, Yamasaki cheered his teammates in the locker room.

Said Yamasaki: “Don’t feel down. We should just assume we’ve lost to (Fighters mighty ace Yu) Darvish and are down 0-2. Fukumori shouldn’t care about that, either. Guys, let’s come to the stadium with a bright face tomorrow.”

It’s clear Yamasaki cherishes his opportunity to be in the playoffs with a chance of playing in the Japan Series for the first time. After all, he had a broken wrist and didn’t play in the championship round when his former team, the Chunichi Dragons, advanced to Japan’s Fall Classic in 1999.

Indeed, just being here, in late October and still playing baseball, is a big deal to him.

Cheap Harimoto: A hard grader, Katsuya Nomura once called one of his players, Teppei Tsuchiya, a “cheap Harimoto,” comparing the 26-year-old outfielder to Isao Harimoto, Japanese baseball’s all-time hit leader (3,085) and a seven-time batting champion, because his salary back then was just ¥10 million.

Tsuchiya, who is more widely known as Teppei as he is registered, has blossomed as a player and has played a big part in the Eagles’ run to the CS this year.

Teppei was first in the league in batting average at .327. He had 13 homers and 76 RBIs.

Teppei, like Yamasaki, hit a ninth-inning two-run dinger in the aforementioned game, which seemed to be an insurance runs for the Eagles. As it turned out, it made many Fighters fans leave the stadium in Game 1.

“I was waiting for a slider (off pitcher Masanori Hayashi), but I actually hit a curveball,” he said of the big homer. “But I was able to react to it nicely.”

But this humble man mildly and calmly added: “It was just a coincidence. . .”

Different kind: Nomura held his daily news conference with reporters before Thursday’s Game 2 in which Nippon Ham started young right-hander Keisaku Itokazu.

One reporter asked Nomura why Fighters skipper Masataka Nashida, a former catcher, would send him to the mound instead of more experienced pitchers Tomoya Yagi or Shugo Fujii in this big stage.

Nomura, also a former catcher, replied: “(Nashida) is a catcher but he’s not the same kind of a catcher as me.”

Nomura said that Nashida is similar type of skipper as ex-Yomiuri Giants manager Shigeo Nagashima, whom many believed often relied on intuition during his reign.

The 74-year-old Nomura compared himself to Masaaki Mori, also a former catcher who helped the Seibu Lions build a dynasty in the 1980s and early ’90s as a manager.

“I’m a kind of Mori,” Nomura said with a chuckle.