The Tokyo Yakult Swallows made it to the playoffs last year. Now they’ll get to see how hard it is to make it back.
The Swallows made an unexpected run into the postseason last season, a result they hope sets the foundation for a prolonged period of success.
“We improved last year and we have to keep improving this year,” Swallows outfielder Kazuki Fukuchi said. “We just gotta keep playing hard and keep moving forward.”
The Swallows return the core of their 2009 team, led by Norichika Aoki, who hit .303 with 16 homers and 66 RBIs. Also back is Aaron Guiel, who led the team in home runs (27) RBI pacesetter Jamie D’Antona (83) and leading pitcher Shohei Tateyama (16-6, 3.39 ERA).
“We’re relatively the same team we were last year,” Guiel said. “Minus (Ryota) Igarashi, which really hurts our bullpen. But we had a lot of our younger players get better and mature last year, which is one of the reasons we were able to make the postseason.
“Hopefully those same players got just a little bit better and put in the work. We’re seeing some results. We’re seeing some of our younger players play really well. For us to be successful, we’re going to really need that.”
Returning the core of a playoff team puts Yakult in good shape heading into the season. Even so, the Swallows understand they turned a few heads with their play last year.
“I think it makes it more difficult,” Guiel said. “Last year there was relatively little pressure on this team. They didn’t expect this team to do much. So for us to make the playoffs was a pretty big success for us.
“This year we come in as the No. 3 team. I know the Tigers are going to be very strong again this year, plus some of the other teams have improved. Those teams are going to be coming for us. Also we’re not going to be surprising any teams this year with our good play.”
The Swallows are flush with veterans but their fate could be tied to a number of young players in important positions.
The rotation could feature a pair of pitchers under the age of 25 in third-year hurler Yoshinori Sato (20) and Kyohei Muranaka (22), who is entering his fourth season.
In the field, Keizo Kawashima’s injury problems could see either 23-year-old Takahiro Araki or Shingo Kawabata, also 23, earn significant playing time.
“I think a lot of people didn’t expect us to make the playoffs last year and we were able to do that,” Guiel said. “I think that gave a lot of these younger players some confidence.
“Players like Aoki and (Shinya) Miyamoto, they know what they can do. But some of the supporting players who were able to play really well, maybe that gave them the confidence to think ‘maybe we belong here.’ “
The Swallows’ young players will get an immediate test with the team opening the year against the defending Japan Series champion Yomiuri Giants on March 26.
“I think a lot of these younger players, when they get into the dome, they get a little overwhelmed,” Guiel said. “The aura of the Giants, the atmosphere of the Tokyo Dome, there’s a lot of pressure there.
“Aoki, Miyamoto and (Masanori) Ishikawa, those guys will always perform in the Tokyo Dome. But it’s some of those younger guys who need to forget who you’re playing and just play your game.”
A successful start against the Giants would be a step in the right direction, but Yakult is after prolonged success, not fleeting moments of greatness.
“We’re practicing hard and taking it little by little,” Fukuchi said. “But we have to step it up a little bit the way we did last year.”