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Lions’ Nakamura bucking trend in season of reduced numbers

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It is no secret 2011 is the year of the pitcher in Japanese baseball. Batting averages, home runs and RBI totals are down, and the Hanshin Tigers fans especially must be getting tired of looking at the scoreboard in the seventh or eighth inning of their team’s games and seeing a 1-0 or 1-1 score.

Through games of Wednesday, we still had only one .300 hitter in the Central League; Yomiuri Giants outfielder Hisayoshi Chono, batting .315. There were only four guys over the .300 mark in the Pacific League and a total of seven starting pitchers in both leagues who have ERAs under 2.00.

There are four factors which have been suggested as helping the guys on the mound get an advantage over those swinging the lumber at the plate as the season has moved along: The new NPB ball to which the hitters have not fully adjusted, the supposedly darkened stadiums where power has been cut by 20 percent in accordance with Japan’s setsuden or energy-saving campaign, an apparent slight expansion of the strike zone by umpires to speed up the games a bit -and one more I have noticed in watching games this year.

For whatever reason, the hitters do not look to be as aggressive as in the past, and it seems to me they are taking more pitches than before — especially on the shokyu or first pitch of an at bat. The pitcher often lays in a fat, straight fastball on that initial serve, and the batter just watches it go by for strike one. It is as if he got the “take” sign from his bench — and maybe he did.

Check it out next time you watch a game at the ballpark or on TV and see if it is not so.

It is possible this year a new reverse-record might be set for lowest title-winning batting average in the Central League. In 1962, Katsuya Morinaga of the Hiroshima Carp led the CL with a .307 average.

Hopefully, Chono will stay above that mark and other title contenders, such as Matt Murton and Keiichi Hirano of the Tigers and Norichika Aoki of the Yakult Swallows, will step up. At last look, Murton was hitting .298, Hirano .299, and Aoki was way down (for him) at .285 but capable of getting hot at any time.

Aoki’s teammate Wladimir Balentien continued to lead the Central League with 25 home runs, and Terrmel Sledge of the Yokohama BayStars had 20 roundtrippers.

“Hammer” (Sledge) missed some time with a recent injury, and “Coco” (Balentien) has been playing sporadically, so someone is going to have to get cranking to win the CL homer derby with a total in the 30s.

The one mystery in all this is Saitama Lions infielder Takeya Nakamura, who had belted 37 home runs and was on a pace to hit 49 for the year, and that would be a career high. He slammed 46 in 2008 and 48 in 2009.

For whatever reason, Nakamura’s long ball production has not been diminished by the ball, the stadium lights or a wider strike zone.

How do you figure it?

Diamond Dust: Bill Bickard reports he will be calling play-by-play in English of four more Pacific League games this month on channel BS-11. The schedule includes the Orix Buffaloes at the Chiba Lotte Marines on Friday, the Marines at the Rakuten Eagles on Sept. 20-21, and the Seibu Lions at Rakuten on Sept. 27.

Tune in to the action with Bill and his partner, Taka Masatsugu, as these teams fight for a Pa League Climax Series berth.

Remember Chase Lambin?

He played in Japan with the Marines in 2009, along with Gary Burnham Jr. Both Chase and Gary were good guys but never really got a chance to adjust to Japanese baseball amid the turmoil during Bobby Valentine’s final year as the Lotte manager.

Lambin spent this season playing third base with the Rochester Red Wings, the Triple-A affiliate of the Minnesota Twins, and was recently interviewed about his continued efforts to make it to the majors, and he mentioned how much he enjoyed his time in Chiba. This season at Rochester, he played in 134 games, hitting six home runs with 46 RBIs and batting .274.

Finally this week, Baseball America carried an obituary recording the recent death of another nostalgic ballplayer.

This time, though, it is not an American who played in Japan but an outfielder whose name I remember well from my childhood collection of baseball cards.

Former major league outfielder Gus Zernial died earlier this year in Fresno, California, at the age of 87. Nicknamed “Ozark Ike, he played for the Chicago White Sox, the Philadelphia and Kansas City Athletics and Detroit Tigers from 1949 through 1959, leading the American League with 33 home runs (they must have used the Japanese ball that year) and 129 RBIs in 1951. He also hit 42 homers in 1953.

It is from his Topps baseball cards from the ’50s that I remember him the most, as it seemed every time I spent five cents for a package of those cards with the flat slab of pink sugar-powdered bubble gum, it seemed as if the Gus Zernial one was in about one of every three packs.

I must have had at least 10 Zernials every year, along with others with unforgettable names such as Elmer Valo, Rip Repulski, Chico Carrasquel, Gino Cimoli and my all-time favorite, Arnie Portocarrero.

The Mickey Mantle, Stan Musial, Ted Williams, Ernie Banks, Roy Campanella, Duke Snider and Willie Mays cards may have been scarce, but there was never a shortage of the Gus Zernial number.

Contact Wayne Graczyk at Wayne@JapanBall.com