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Marines’ cowardice left Fujioka to face fans’ ire

by Jason Coskrey

Seibu Lions fans weren’t happy Saturday afternoon and they were letting Chiba Lotte Marines rookie pitcher Takahiro Fujioka feel the brunt of their vitriol.

Fujioka wasn’t giving Hiroyuki Nakajima anything to hit, or anything even remotely close to the plate, and each ball he threw sent the majority of the 26,938 in attendance further into a rage.

The position Fujioka was in was not of his doing and wholly untenable. The rookie was simply following orders, and in a position there was no reason to place him in.

At the time, Lotte outfielder Katsuya Kakunaka led Nakajima by two points in race for the Pacific League batting title, and the Marines were not about to let that slip away.

So the team kept Kakunaka safely tucked away in the visitors’ dugout, lest he record a few outs and cede any ground.

The problem, of course, is that Nakajima’s status was out of Lotte’s hands, and after missing a few games with a sore back, Nakajima was back in the 3-hole for Seibu.

So the Marines did the next best thing, and took a realistic shot at the title out of Nakajima’s hands by having Fujioka toss ball after ball toward the opposite batter’s box, walking Nakajima to prevent him from recording any hits.

The Lions shortstop was walked twice before being pulled from the game.

The crowd reacted vociferously, and it was a bush-league move to be sure. It’s one thing to park Kakunaka on the bench, but to then prevent Nakajima from even having a fair shot was a low blow. The Marines not are the first team to employ such a strategy, and probably won’t be the last, but that makes it no less cowardly.

The worst part of it all, is that Lotte manager Norifumi Nishimura used 23-year-old Fujioka as his hired gun.

“I was simply following the instructions from the bench,” Fujioka told Sports Nippon. “It was my responsibility, even though I received boos.”

While Kakunaka and Nishimura sat in the dugout, it was Fujioka on the mound incurring the wrath of the crowd, and it was Fujioka who was supposed to toss warm-up balls in-front of the dugout between innings, where the fans’ anger would be on top of him. It got to the point that he didn’t even want to warm up, as fans, according to Sponchi, yelled, “die,” among other things at him.

Fujioka got off to a strong start this season but hit the rookie wall hard. Nagging injuries played a role, but his command and his numbers seemed to worsen the deeper into the season he went.

In his last start of the year, Fujioka should’ve been worrying about taking some momentum into the offseason, not dealing with the potentially psyche-rattling situation he was in Saturday.

The Marines could’ve put a veteran in that spot, or better yet, just played it fairly, pitched to Nakajima (with Kakunaka either in or out of the Lotte lineup), and allowed the better man to win.

Kakunaka will take the batting title because he has had a great season, which is why he walked into Seibu Dome leading the race in the first place. He’s a worthy winner, but the way he wrapped it up leaves something to be desired.

As he celebrates the accomplishment, hopefully he spares a moment of thanks for Fujioka, who went into a hostile environment and took one for the team.