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Nakata finally paying off for Fighters brass

by Jason Coskrey

Staff Writer

The Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters got next to nothing out of Sho Nakata for the better part of two seasons after selecting the heralded high school power hitter in the 2007 draft.

Things just didn’t work out as planned initially as Nakata failed to earn a permanent spot on the top team roster, struggled in the field, and was even called out by Atsunori Inaba and Yu Darvish for maturity issues.

At long last, however, it might finally be “Sho time.”

Nakata is off to a great start this year and may be ready to take a step toward becoming the RBI machine the Fighters thought they were drafting in the first place.

Nakata has burst out of the gate this year with a .302 average, five home runs and 15 RBIs.

Alongside Micah Hoffpauir, who is turning out to be quite the signing himself with seven homers and 16 RBIs so far, Nakata gives the Fighters a legitimate power presence in the lineup. Something team has lacked, despite its success, in recent years.

In terms of pitching and defense, the Fighters are among the best in Japan and any offensive boost makes them that much harder to beat.

If Nakata has indeed turned a corner, his presence makes the Fighters’ lineup harder to deal with in the very competitive Pacific League.

Tiger cub: From Yuki Saito to Hirokazu Sawamura, rookie pitchers are all the rage this year.

Hanshin Tigers hurler Daiki Enokida is making an impact early in his first season as well, even if he isn’t as heralded as his more famous contemporaries.

Coming out of the bullpen, Enokida, a first-round pick in the 2011 draft and formerly of Tokyo Gas, has made 11 appearances so far this season, recording six holds, a 0.71 ERA and 18 strikeouts over 12? innings.

Enokida may be destined for a role in the rotation in future years, but the youngster has a chance to make an impact on the 2011 pennant race, coming out of the bullpen for the Tigers.

Strikeout club: Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters ace Yu Darvish turned in a signature outing on May 10 against the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, striking out a career-high 15 in his first shutout of the season.

The performance marked the 40th time Darvish has struck out at least 10 batters in a game, making him the 11th pitcher in NPB history to reach double-digit strikeouts in a single game at least 40 times.

He joins a who’s who of Japanese pitchers, including luminaries Masaichi Kaneda (the all-time leader with 103 such games) and Yutaka Enatsu (69 times).

Among the 11 on the list, three are still active: Darvish, Toshiya Sugiuchi (42) and Kazuhisa Ishii (40).

Harvest time: Japan’s farm leagues announced their monthly MVP Awards for March and April, with the awards going to Kota Sumi in the Eastern League and Yusuke Matsui in the Western League.

Sumi, an infielder for the Chiba Lotte Marines, appeared in 23 games, hitting .356 with a homer and 11 RBIs.

Matsui, hoping to win a callup to the top team for the Chunichi Dragons, won the award after hitting .337 and driving in 13 runs in 25 games. Matsui also had a home run.