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Rookies play major roles in Japan Series

by Kaz Nagatsuka

CHIBA — Almost right away, Ikuhiro Kiyota and Yohei Oshima shook their heads when asked whether they would be playing on such a privileged stage like the Japan Series before their first pro season began this year.

That shouldn’t be a surprise. After all, both are rookies and weren’t high-profile draftees last fall.

“Oh no, I didn’t even dream of being here,” Chiba Lotte’s Kiyota said before Thursday’s Game 5 of the Japan Series, in which the Marines crushed Chunichi 10-4 at Chiba Marine Stadium.

“I was surely going to do my best, though. But no, not like this.”

The 24-year-old outfielder Kiyota, who joined the Marines as their fourth-round draft pick this year, is now a relevant member of Chiba Lotte, which is seeking its first Nippon Professional Baseball title since 2005.

Kiyota has hit .368 with a home run as the No. 2 hitter in the lineup through five games. He has already come up with six RBIs, tying the Japan Series rookie record shared by Koichi Iwashita of the Toei Flyers (1962), Tatsunori Hara of the Yomiuri Giants (1981) and Seiji Kamikawa of the Chunichi Dragons (1982). Kamikawa is the infield and base-running coach for the Marines.

Overshadowed by Takashi Ogino, the Marines’ No. 1 pick in the 2009 draft earlier in the season, Kiyota ended up playing in 64 games, slightly less than half a season, with a .290 average, two homers and 18 RBIs.

But almost suddenly, Kiyota started producing in the postseason. In the Pacific League Climax Series final stage against the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks, he belted two homers, and added another in Game 1 of the Japan Series to surpass his season total.

Kiyota had a heroic night in Game 3 to give the Marines a 2-1 series lead on Tuesday. He smacked a three-run RBI triple in the fourth in Chiba Lotte’s 7-1 win.

While Kiyota maintains a lighthearted persona on the field, even in the stakes-are-high championship series, Oshima keeps a low-key profile and swings the bat reticently.

But Oshima made an impact in the pro game before Kiyota. The left-handed hitter was in the Dragons’ starting lineup as the leadoff man on Opening Day. He played in 104 games, batting .258 average and driving in 17 runs in the regular season.

“What I did prevailed over my prediction on how I would do (before the season),” said Oshima, a fifth-round draft pick for the Dragons, on Thursday. “I never thought I would be playing in this many games.”

Oshima’s performance might pale in comparison to Kiyota’s flashy play in the Japan Series. But Oshima surely chipped in for Chunichi, coming up with key RBI hits in both victories. In Game 1, he drove in two runs in the first inning in the Dragons’ 12-1 triumph. And in Game 4, he hit an 11th-inning game-winning RBI triple in Chunichi’s 4-3 win.

“We took the loss because of Kiyota yesterday,” Oshima said after Game 4. “So I wanted to do something today.”

Kiyota said that he does not view Oshima as a rival. But since both of them are 24 years old, played in the same collegiate league (Toto league) and competed in the national industrial league championships, he is certainly aware of Oshima’s presence.

“(Oshima) was really doing well in the industrial league,” Kiyota said. “So for sure, I want to do as well as he does in pro baseball.”