There were all sorts of strings attached to Hisayoshi Chono’s last at-bat of the regular season.
For starters, his pinch-hit, come-from-behind grand slam in the bottom of the ninth inning on Saturday gave the Yomiuri Giants a win in their final game of the season. It also made an 18-game winner out of starter Tetsuya Utsumi (18-6), who sat in the dugout in line to take a loss and instead ended up tying the Chunichi Dragons’ Kazuki Yoshimi for the Central League lead in wins.
The hit was the 1,000th grand slam in CL history as well as the team’s first walk-off grand slam since Isao Hirano hit one against the Hiroshima Carp in 1971.
In a way, the various threads that were affected by that one swing of the bat was a microcosm of the Giants’ entire season. Because most of the things that went right for the Kyojin this year can be traced back to their second-year star.
Chono was the team’s most consistent player throughout the season, picking the Giants up with his play both at the plate and in the field.
Yomiuri manager Tatsunori Hara deployed him in a number of places in the lineup — Chono even moonlighted as the team’s cleanup hitter for a few games — before settling on slotting him into the 3-hole.
Chono performed no matter where he was hitting, posting a .316 average, the highest in the CL through Sunday’s contests. Barring a big night from Hanshin Tigers outfielder Matt Murton on Monday, Chono will add a CL batting title to his resume.
In addition to being an above-average outfielder, whether playing in center or right field, Chono hit 17 home runs, drove in 69 runs and stole 19 bases.
He also ended the year with the highest on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS) in the CL at .847. Among qualified batters, only Tokyo Yakult Swallows slugger Kazuhiro Hatakeyama (.841), Tigers shortstop Takashi Toritani (.809) and Hiroshima Carp star Kenta Kurihara (.803) had an OPS above .800 through Sunday.
He had the type of season that should result in an MVP Award, among a few others, when such things are announced by the NPB this winter.
Referring to Chono as a regular second-year player almost does him a disservice considering the winding road he took to the Giants.
After playing for Nihon University, Chono was selected by the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters in the 2006 draft. He had other ideas, saying he would only play for the Giants and embarking on what would eventually become four years as a standout with Honda in the industrial league.
The pros came calling again in 2008, this time in the form of the Chiba Lotte Marines, but still Chono held out for Yomiuri.
He finally got his wish at the 2009 draft and proved he was worth the trouble, hitting .288 with 19 homers and 52 RBIs en route to being named CL Rookie of the Year.
Chono put the spotlight on himself before his first NPB at-bat and in just two seasons has become a star.
The glare will only get brighter when he takes the field against Hatakeyama’s Swallows this weekend in the CL Climax Series at Jingu Stadium. Chono hit just .244 against with five home runs and 18 RBIs against the Swallows this season, though he hit .276 with a pair of homers and five RBIs in seven games at Jingu.
If the Giants are to advance in the postseason, they’ll likely need Chono right in the thick of things. Which is where he’s been whenever Yomiuri has needed him all season.