The Yokohama BayStars have a new manager, new players and a new attitude.
The only thing left for last year’s Central League cellar-dwellers is to get to work producing some new results.
“This team has been losing,” outfielder Seiichi Uchikawa said. “So there is a lot of pressure this year. There is a nervous mood among the team.”
The BayStars are coming off their second consecutive last-place campaign in the Central League, going 51-93 and finishing 16 games out of fifth place and 42 1/2 games behind the first-place Yomiuri Giants.
The poor season led to an offseason overhaul that saw the team hire former Giants pitching coach Takeo Obana as manager and bring in a host of new players.
“They’re tired of being in last place,” new addition Termell Sledge said. “It’s a win-win situation. Because the only way to go is up for this team. The team is going to need time to gel and once we gel, we can compete with anyone.”
Among the highlights of the BayStars winter shopping spree was Sledge, brought in from the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters as a free agent, and former Chiba Lotte Marines pitcher Naoyuki Shimizu, who was added via trade.
“I think Sledge brings a lot to the team,” Uchikawa said. “I think he will help us score more runs. The team has also gotten faster, which will make games more interesting.”
Sledge hit .266 with 27 homers and 88 RBIs last season, helping the Fighters reach the Japan Series. After three seasons in the cavernous Sapporo Dome, hitter-friendly Yokohama Stadium could be like a breath of fresh air.
“I’m not going to do anything differently,” Sledge said. “I’m going to do everything the same. The numbers will always be there. What’s most important is to try and help this team win. Guys like (Shuichi) Murata and Uchikawa, they want to win. They brought me over here to help the team win.”
The new additions, who also include former Marines Tasuku Hashimoto and Daisuke Hayakawa, Japan debutante Jose Castillo and reliever Chris Bootcheck among others have thus far had a smooth transition.
“I’ve tried to make them feel like part of the team,” Uchikawa said. “I think they are becoming more comfortable here. The good atmosphere and friendly mood is one of our team’s strong points.”
Among the returnees, Uchikawa was among the few Yokohama bright spots, hitting .318 with 17 homers and 66 RBIs. The BayStars also welcome back a healthy Shuichi Murata and Yuki Yoshimura. A big season from that trio could go a long way toward digging Yokohama out of the league cellar.
“I expect a lot out of myself,” Uchikawa said. “I think for this team to make a change is really important. So I know that I need to improve as well.”
Mixing the old with the new will be up to first-year manager Obana, who spent the last fours seasons with the Giants. Yokohama fans will hope Obana can bring some of the Giants’ winning ways with him.
“He’s the kind of manager that when he says something you listen,” Bootcheck said. “Because usually he has something good to say.”
Obana comes to the team after successful stints as pitching coach for the Daiei Hawks and the Giants.
He’ll face a big challenge in getting the BayStars back on track after a CL-worst 4.36 team ERA last season.
Pitching woes were among the main reasons for bringing in Shimizu to partner with mainstay Daisuke Miura.
Improvement at the plate would take lot of pressure off the pitching staff.
Which is where Sledge and company come in.
“They are embracing us because they want to win,” Sledge said. “They don’t just want a guy to hit 40 home runs with 70 RBIs. They want to win. They’d rather take a guy who delivers with runners in scoring position and in crucial situations who is helping the team win.
“This team is excited. The city of Yokohama is excited too. So, I’m ready.”