New Yomiuri Giants manager Yoshinobu Takahashi was all smiles at the Dome Kickoff party last week. He was introduced to a loud ovation, took part in a light-hearted talk show and got a kick out of seeing his batting form imitated by a couple of former NPB players. Current Giants star Shinnosuke Abe, currently training in Guam, even got in on the action, punctuating a video message with his own exaggerated take on Takahashi’s batting style.
Abe ended his video by bowing and saying “sumimasen.” Because even in jest, Takahashi isn’t just one of the guys anymore. He’s the man in charge now.
Takahashi can have his fun now, but the pressure is only going to grow until the Giants break camp in February. The spotlight won’t abate until the end of the season — and then only if the Giants deliver an acceptable performance.
Takahashi has a lot of history to live up to in the Yomiuri dugout.
He’s sitting in the seat once occupied by legendary skipper Tetsuharu Kawakami and Yomiuri icons Shigeo Nagashima and Sadaharu Oh (legendary as players, less so as managers). Even so, the specter that may loom largest is that of his immediate predecessor, Tatsunori Hara.
A former Giants star himself, Hara played the role of Yomiuri manager perfectly when the cameras were rolling and was also wildly successful. Hara won the Central League pennant and Japan Series title in his first season in charge, in 2002, and added six more pennants and two more Japan Series crowns during his tenure from 2002-2003 and 2006-2015.
Takahashi also takes on the burden of the Yomiuri lineage — the team has never had a manager who wore a different uniform either as a player or coach. Since 1950, four Yomiuri skippers began their tenure (the first one at least) by winning the pennant and only one, Nagashima, failed to register at least an A-Class finish in Year One.
The Giants expect success and lots of it — Hara might still be in charge had he captured a fourth consecutive pennant last season — and Takahashi will be under the gun from the start.
Everything has been fun and games until this point, but the party will be over quickly if the good times don’t keep rolling into the season.
Comeback trail: Chunichi Dragons reliever Takuya Asao is in Guam working out and trying to recapture that magic that once made him a Central League MVP. Beset by injuries, Asao has produced a string of subpar seasons in the Chunichi bullpen in recent years. The right-hander is hoping to arrive at camp next month fully healthy and ready to contribute.
“You can’t compete against younger players without good results,” the 31-year old told Nikkan Sports. “I want to pitch to help win games. “I think the relievers are all in the same place right now, so we just have to go from here.”
Asao put up solid numbers in 2009 and soon placed himself among Japan’s elite relievers as closer Hitoki Iwase’s set-up man. In 2010, Asao set an NPB record with 47 holds, also finishing with 75 strikeouts over 80⅓ innings in 72 appearances. He had one save, a 1.68 ERA and 0.87 WHIP.
Asao was the Central League MVP in 2011, recording 45 holds 10 saves and seven wins. He struck out 100 over 87⅓ innings in 79 appearances, finishing with a 0.41 ERA and 0.82 WHIP.
He hasn’t made more than 36 appearances in a season since then.
Touch ’em all: Tokyo Yakult Swallows manager Mitsuru Manaka hopes to see more of slugger Wladimir Balentien this season. Injuries limited the three-time home run king to 15 games in 2015.
“I want him to play every game (this year),” Manaka was quoted as saying by Nikkan Sports last week.
Manaka would likely settle for a simple majority. If Balentien plays every game, it would be for the first time in Japan. The closest he’s come so far is 140 in 2011.
There were 11 NPB players to appear in all 143 games last season.