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Otani’s presence hard to ignore during NPB All-Star Series

by Jason Coskrey

If this year’s NPB All-Star Series was about anything, it was about Shohei Otani.

Media and fans couldn’t get enough of the 19-year-old Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters rookie, and it was a good thing too, because he was everywhere.

He pitched, he hit, and he played the field, but no matter where he was, Otani was the unquestioned center of attention.

Otani was known to baseball fans long before the All-Star Series — he was cast in the spotlight after nearly heading to the majors out of high school, and was the subject of a New York Times feature July 10 — but with all of Japanese baseball’s attention trained on the All-Star proceedings, the series ended up being a de facto coming-out party for the teen, who is 2-0 as a pitcher and hitting .305 with a pair of home runs, 13 doubles, and 12 RBIs in 37 games as a position player.

Unlike the saga of Los Angeles Dodgers phenomenon Yasiel Puig, who didn’t make it onto the All-Star roster in the majors, NPB put its star out front and center during the All-Star festivities, and he was a sight to behold.

In Game 1 at Sapporo Dome, Otani pitched for two innings and remained in to play the outfield, joining Ichiro Suzuki (1996) as the only players to compete as a pitcher and position player during an All-Star game.

“He’s something special,” said Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles All-Star Andruw Jones, who called Game 1 the “perfect setup” for Otani. “Playing in front of his home crowd, getting the chance to come in and pitch then play defense and get some at-bats,” Jones said. “That was great for him and great for the fans in Sapporo.”

Otani didn’t hold back on the mound either, throwing all fastballs and touching 157 on the radar gun.

“It was actually the first time in a while that I put a lot of power into it,” Otani told Sports Nippon. “I was able to keep the ball in the strike zone better than I thought.”

Yokohama BayStars veteran Norihiro Nakamura compared Otani’s stuff to that of Daisuke Matsuzaka and Hideki Irabu, and he wasn’t the only one who came away impressed.

“I think that if he keeps it up, he’ll be able to throw a 100-miles-per-hour (160-kph) pitch,” said Yokohama BayStars slugger Tony Blanco. “It was a great fastball.”

In the outfield, Otani made a great standing throw after a catch to almost pick off Tsuyoshi Nishioka at second base, further showing off his range of talent.

In Game 2, Otani became the first rookie out of high school to hit leadoff in an All-Star game and opened the contest with a double, finishing 1-for-4, and later played both right and left field.

The rookie was one of the heroes of the finale on Monday, driving in the game-tying run with a single in the eighth inning. Otani scored the tie-breaking run later in the frame, coming home on Fukuoka Softbank Hawks outfielder Seiichi Uchikawa’s two-run double, and the PL went on to score a 3-1 come-from-behind victory.

Otani was put out on display and he handled it all with the aplomb and maturity befitting a player much older than 19. He was the major attraction entering the game, put on a good show and gave the people what they came to see.

Otani’s ascendancy is good for Japanese baseball, which is now operating in an era where some of the league’s biggest stars have left, or may be leaving, for the majors, and fans want to see if the current celebrated crop of rookies will be able to fill the void.

The game needs a jolt in the arm and right now Otani is it, as there is great interest in how he matures and how long he’s allowed to keep playing as both a pitcher and position player.

His every move over the weekend was chronicled and analyzed during the series, and after the first game, one sports show followed its already Otani-heavy game highlights, with a special Otani-only highlight package.

Japanese baseball doesn’t need the Shohei Otani phenomenon to die out and his time in the spotlight during the All-Star Series suggests that won’t be happening anytime soon.