YOKOHAMA – Veteran skipper Masataka Nashida has no illusions about the challenges facing the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles in his first year in charge, but he is a man with a plan and a positive attitude.
“This is a peculiar situation,” he told Kyodo News as his team prepared to play its preseason finale in Yokohama on Monday. “It’s pretty rare to see a team that is No. 1 in Japan one year and then finishes last the next two seasons.
“This is a team that wasn’t as bad as its record last season, so some (improvement) will come from players just playing the way they are capable of doing.”
Starting from the bottom is not a new experience for the 62-year-old skipper. After finishing last in 1999, the Kintetsu Buffaloes promoted the former catcher — then their farm team manager — to the top job. After finishing last again in 2000, Nashida guided the Buffaloes to the Japan Series in 2001.
In 2008, he took over the reigning Pacific League champion Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters after Trey Hillman decided to return to the United States after back-to-back league titles. In Sapporo, a third-place finish in Nashida’s first campaign was followed by a PL pennant in 2009.
Asked about his track record of second-year success, Nashida laughed and said, “It isn’t going to be easy.
“But I think the offense can come back. We have speed on this team and we can take advantage of that, and I don’t mean just stealing bases. I’m talking about defense and other base running, too.”
He was careful to say that the running needs to be judicious, which would be a dramatic departure from last season. Under former manager Hiromoto Okubo, Rakuten’s aggression on the bases resulted in disaster.
“We need to exercise judgment,” Nashida said.
“Utilizing speed also means playing better defense. Our starting pitching depth is a concern. But with better defense and good pitching at the back of the bullpen, we can ease some of the (starting pitchers’) work load.”
Although Nashida said he had been puzzling over the best place for athletic center fielder Louis Okoye to begin his pro career, the youngster’s defense may have made up the skipper’s mind.
After Monday’s game, Okoye became the first player in the Eagles’ 12-year-history to begin his first season out of high school on the Opening Day roster.
“The start of the cherry blossom season was announced (today),” Nashida said. “So perhaps we’ll see him blossom, too.”
The skipper also revealed he will probably start the season with rookie Eigoro Mogi, the team’s third-round draft pick out of Waseda University, at shortstop.