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Giants still looking for more power from cleanup hitters

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Hall of Famer Shigeo Nagashima was the 25th player in the history of the Yomiuri Giants to hit fourth in the Kyojin’s starting lineup, according to the team’s records. Sadaharu Oh was the 28th, and Hideki Matsui the 62nd. Taishi Ota, in the cleanup role for the past four games, is the 81st.

The Giants both keep track of this and play it up, because of course they do. It might, for instance, take a little digging to find the sequential order of Tokyo Yakult cleanup hitters through the years, and perhaps even more research to find someone, even among Swallows fans, who really cares. Which makes it exactly the type of exercise in grandiosity one would expect from the Kyojin.

There is, however, some meat on this bone. Because the collective fawning over each lucky new yonban batter has shined a light on an offensive deficiency. Because while Giants are getting enough timely hitting and good pitching to be in first place, it’s been without much pop out of the No. 4 spot.

The cleanup spot is a glamor position for the Giants. But even in most lineups, No. 4 is usually reserved for a team’s best power hitter, as his main job is to drive in the Nos. 1-3 hitters who would presumably be on base. So far this year, the Giants haven’t gotten much power from their No. 4 hitters.

Entering Monday, the Kyojin had yet to get a home run from any cleanup hitter this season, and those players were hitting .264 with 11 RBIs in 106 at-bats.

Manager Tatsunori Hara (the No. 48 cleanup man in Giants history) began the year with Shinnosuke Abe (No. 72) hitting fourth but began shuffling the deck 14 games into the season. Since then, Hayato Sakamoto (No. 82), Daisuke Nakai (No. 83) and Ota have begun games hitting out of the four-hole.

Perhaps Ota is the cure to the malaise. He was 6-for-12 in his first three games as the cleanup hitter and the power should come. Yomiuri has always had high hopes for Ota, drafting him first in 2008 and giving him both Hideki Matsui’s No. 55 and Godzilla’s old dorm room. The Giants have given Ota ample opportunity to turn the corner. There would be no time like the present for him to finally get it together, leave long days with the ni-gun team in the rearview mirror and hold down the No. 4 spot as the Giants have envisioned.

Should Ota flame out, the team has another candidate in new addition Juan Francisco, who hit 48 home runs over parts of six seasons in the majors, including 18 in 2013 and 16 last season. There’s also Shuichi Murata (No. 76), who seems to finally be breaking out of the funk he’s been in since spring training.

When the Yomiuri offense was firing on all cylinders seemingly every year from 2006-2012, there was usually a potent cleanup man — be it Lee Seung-yeop (No. 70), Abe or Alex Ramirez (No. 74) — opposing pitchers had to tiptoe around. There were always a host of other All-Star bats in the lineup too, but even when the offense began to wane in recent seasons, the Kyojin still usually had a power bat to be feared batting fourth.

This year (and for much of 2014) opposing teams can be more aggressive going through what used to be a minefield of a lineup, since it’s been diluted by slumps and injuries.

The fourth spot isn’t necessarily the biggest piece of the puzzle, but it’s important. Because every team can use a guy it can count on to drive in the hitters in front of him.

Perhaps Ota, or Francisco, or Murata, or whomever eventually becomes No. 84 on the Giants’ list turns out to be the answer for Yomiuri.

Hara has been shuffling the deck, and he won’t hesitate to do it again, all in hopes of identifying a new fantastic No. 4 for the Giants.