Choosing the 2012 Pacific League manager of the year is a no-brainer for me. It is Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters rookie skipper Hideki Kuriyama, who led his club to a pennant victory, a Climax Series sweep of the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks and into the Japan Series against the Yomiuri Giants.
The job done by Kuriyama this season is one of the best by a first-year bench boss I have ever seen in Japanese baseball. He took over a good team but one having to deal with the loss of ace pitcher Yu Darvish, who left for the Texas Rangers a year ago, and he got little help from Darvish’s heir apparent as the Fighters’ poster boy, second-year right-hander Yuki Saito, posted a 5-8 record while being limited to 19 games.
Also lost was American hurler Bobby Keppel, a 14-game winner for the Fighters last year when they were managed by Masataka Nashida. Keppel was sidelined after appearing in only two games and returned to the U.S. Add to that injury list slugging outfielder Terrmel Sledge who did not play during the second half of the season.
Still, Kuriyama was able to piece together a consistent lineup and pitching rotation led by an unlikely ace, left-hander Mitsuo Yoshikawa whose 2011 record was 0-5 with 4.74 ERA in just seven games. In 2012, the 24-year-old Fukuoka native made 25 appearances and lost five games again but won 14 this time and topped the Pacific League with an ERA of 1.71.
On offense, Kuriyama also seemed to push all the right buttons. Most notably, he used outfielders Yoshio Itoi and Daikan Yo, seeing both of them rise to stardom. Itoi posted the third-best batting average in the Pa League at .304, and stole 22 bases. Yo hit .287, eighth-best in the PL and delivered key hits throughout the season.
As Nippon Ham executive director Toshimasa Shimada and team director Kenichi Iwamoto said back in late May while playing the Yomiuri Giants in an interleague game at Tokyo Dome, “We are so happy we chose Kuriyama as manager and believe he will lead us to a pennant victory and an appearance in the Japan Series in October.”
Well, here they are — in October, at Tokyo Dome, playing the Giants in the Japan Series for the second time in four years. Win or lose, the Fighters, their fans and all of Hokkaido should be proud of their manager. At 50, Kuriyama has a chance to become a long-term skipper with Nippon Ham. He’s off to a great start.
Now, let’s see how he copes with the pressure of the Japan Series against the mighty Kyojin.
Diamond Dust: First baseman Craig Brazell has gone home, having been released by the Hanshin Tigers, but he still wants to play in Japan in 2013. “I would like to stay in (the Central) League,” he said, after it became apparent his four-year stint with Hanshin would be coming to an end.
Brazell, 32, said he would not mind playing for Yokohama in spite of the BayStars having the worst record in Japan. He loves to hit in Yokohama Stadium and has had some of his best games in that ballpark.
In 2010, the last season prior to NPB changing its ball from the more lively one to the deader version, and the year he hit 47 home runs, Brazell said he used to take one day out of each three-game series when the Tigers played there and, during pre-game batting practice, “I would take nothing but full swings and see how many balls I could hit completely out of the stadium.”
There were many.
Rumors have begun to surface regarding new foreign players in Japan for the 2013 season. At least two Japanese sports papers mentioned Brazell’s replacement with Hanshin next season could be Brooks Conrad, a 32-year-old infielder who plays second and third base and has major league experience with Oakland, Atlanta, Milwaukee and Tampa Bay.
Conrad is a native of California and is listed on an Internet profile as an “ambidextrous batter.” Ah, I think we call that a switch hitter.
An oddity: Tokyo Yakult Swallows slugger Wladimir Balentien led the Central League in home runs for the second season in a row, but his name does not appear in the list of the CL’s Top 30 hitters this year, because he did not have the minimum 446 plate appearances to qualify.
He missed five weeks of the season due to injury and a 10-day demotion to the Swallows farm team for texting on the bench during a game and ended the year with just 422 trips to the dish.
Balentien belted 31 homers, denying a batting Triple Crown to Yomiuri Giants catcher Shinnosuke Abe, and it marked the first time since the two-league system was formed in Japanese baseball in 1950, that a home run leader in either league did not make the Best 30 cut.
Finally this week, it is widely known that Japan’s sports newspapers have a reputation for manufacturing stories and starting rumors with questionable headlines in order to increase newsstand sales.
The Sankei Sports paper ran a front page headline on its Oct. 20 edition, suggesting New York Yankees outfielder Ichiro Suzuki and the Yomiuri Giants should get together and have the soon-to-be-39-year-old one-time major league MVP play for the teamin Tokyo next season.
Contact Wayne Graczyk at: Wayne@JapanBall.com