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Fighters face important decision as Otani prepares for return to field

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Shohei Otani looked good in the Toei Flyers throwback uniform the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters donned over the weekend. So Fighters fans at least had that to fall back on, since they didn’t see him do anything else.

The team generated a little excitement when it placed Otani, who because of injuries has played in just eight games (and pitched in none) this season, back on the active roster for its series against the Pacific League-leading Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles this past weekend in Sapporo.

As it turned out, Otani was on the active roster, but never an active participant. He knocked seven balls over the fences and did some running before Friday’s game, threw in the bullpen on Saturday and went through pregame practice again on Sunday. He was relegated to being an observer during the actual games, with the extent of his participation being to help warm up the left fielder. He made it on deck once, but the inning ended before he could make his first plate appearance since April 8.

“It’s regrettable, but I didn’t have a place to use him,” Nippon Ham manager Hideki Kuriyama told reporters after Sunday’s game. “I wanted the Sapporo fans to see him. However, I didn’t want to force it.”

Otani missed this spring’s World Baseball Classic because of an ankle injury he first suffered while running the bases during last fall’s Japan Series, and then aggravated in November while playing for Samurai Japan. He then suffered a left thigh muscle strain on April 8, and hasn’t played since.

His popularity hasn’t waned in the interim, as it was revealed Monday that he was voted into the upcoming All-Star series as a designated hitter. His 447,910 votes far outpaced the 373,258 of the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks’ Alfredo Despaigne.

In his eight contests this season, Otani was 11-for-27 (.407) with a pair of home runs and three RBIs. He also had five doubles.

The Fighters are in a somewhat precarious position as they try to manage how to best work Otani back into the mix.

On one hand, the fifth-place club desperately needs him back. His bat has been sorely missed as the team has also lost Kensuke Kondo, who was hitting .407 (61-for-150) with a .567 on-base percentage when he went down with a hamstring injury earlier this month and who may not return this season. That’s to say nothing of the boost Otani could provide as a pitcher.

On the other hand, the Fighters have to think about his future, and keep him healthy enough to either remain one of the team’s top players or earn it a maximum payout through whatever posting mechanism is in place.

Talents like Otani don’t come around often, and the Fighters (whose only concerns should be what’s best for Otani and the team) have to weigh risking future returns against trying to salvage this particular season by bringing him back too soon.

For what it’s worth, Otani, as players are wont to do, seems ready to play.

“If I’m able to play, I want to play, if I can hit, I want to hit,” Otani told Nikkan Sports on Saturday. “I think anyone would.”

The Fighters don’t seem to be entirely secure with Otani fully running the bases again just yet. He was going to pinch hit if he played at all against Rakuten, which makes one wonder why he was active at all.

The team only managed one run over the final two games of the series, so it’s not as if letting Otani take a few cuts was going to disrupt their offensive flow.

On the positive side, Otani did some baserunning in spikes on Sunday, and trainer Shuichi Fukuda declared him to be at 60-70 percent and on pace for a return to action, according to Kanako Ishikawa of Full-Count.com.

When asked about his base running, Otani said, “there weren’t any problems.”

Of course a return to the mound is another story, and would likely require another trip to the farm team to get up to speed.

The Fighters dropped two of three over the weekend and are nearing a point where their chances of reaching the postseason become more mathematical than feasible.

Bringing Otani back would certainly help the present, the team just seems to be making sure it doesn’t jeopardize the future as well.