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Cleanup hitter Ito makes solid impact for Team Japan

by Kaz Nagatsuka

While Team Japan’s pitchers were getting much of the spotlight, some hitters were worthy of attention, too.

Keio University junior Hayata Ito, who batted in the cleanup spot during the 5th World University Championship, exhibited phenomenal athleticism and a knack for the game that is reminiscent of Yomiuri Giants outfielder Yoshinobu Takahashi.

The left-handed hitter slammed a two-run home run in the first inning to help Japan earn a 9-0 win over South Korea in the third-place game at Jingu Stadium on Saturday afternoon.

“I’m thrilled that I came up with a hit to score the first run that helped the team win the bronze medal,” Ito said after game.

The homer was a smart shot by Ito, a swift but powerful 176-cm outfielder.

He was looking for an off-speed pitch during the at-bat because he had faced the South Korean pitcher, Na Sung Bum, and hit a three-run homer in Japan’s 4-0 win in the first round.

“I hit a fastball off him in the last game,” Ito recalled. “So I didn’t think he would come at me with the same pitch. And I hit a slider.”

The left-handed hitter wasn’t terrific average-wise (.261), but he helped the club produce runs, finishing with a team-high three homers and 10 RBIs.

Ito admitted that he had felt nervous throughout the tournament because this is the first time he’s worn the Hinomaru jersey.

“I’d never experienced such a big stage like this in my baseball career,” said Ito, an Aichi Prefecture native. “I didn’t have a chance to go to Koshien (invitational and national championships when I was in high school). And I was put in the cleanup spot and was feeling massive pressure on my shoulders.

“I don’t think I fully lived up to the team’s expectations, but I appreciate the manager (Tamotsu Enomoto) for keeping his faith in me and using me as the cleanup batter.”

Meanwhile, skipper Enomoto, who serves as the Kinki University manager, did not appear to have any regrets for using Ito in the cleanup spot.

Enomoto recalled that he would go travel to Nagoya to see Ito, when the ballplayer was still in high school. But Ito ended up choosing Keio.

But even though this is not his college team, Enomoto was finally able to have Ito on his squad for this international tourney.

Enomoto added that he had asked the Japanese college baseball federations to call up Ito for training camps.

“It wouldn’t happen easily (to call him up),” Enomoto said. “But once we could do it, I reassured them that he would be one that can hit in the cleanup spot for the national team.

“And I love this guy’s attitude about baseball.”

Ito said he was so disappointed and responsible for the team’s loss to the United States in the semifinals (he was 0-for-4 with two strikeouts).

But the whole tournament gave him a rare opportunity to compete at the international level.

“It was big for me to be able to face that level of pitching,” Ito said. “While they have speed, they move their stuff naturally, especially toward outside. How to deal with it will be important, and I’d like to work on that for the next year.”