Players with the same name on the same team are no rarity in Japanese baseball. When one of these duplicates is an exceptionally good player, he is likely to be remembered as “THE” as opposed to “THE OTHER.”
So that’s how outfielder/first baseman Takayuki Saito probably began his career with the Yomiuri Giants — as the “other” Saito.
But when 180-game winner Masaki Saito retired at the end of last season to become the team’s pitching coach, that left Takayuki as the only active Saito on the roster.
However, it’s more than just his name that has Takayuki attracting attention this year as the 26-year-old left-handed batter is now viewed as one of the up-and-coming “youngsters” in the Central League.
Which is not exactly how this Saito regards himself.
“I myself don’t think I’m a ‘young’ player really, now that I’ve been doing this for eight years,” Saito said, prior to the start of the second half of the season.
“But whenever I’m called up to the ichigun (top team), to everybody else I always become the ‘young one.’ “
This year, after starting the season with several pinch-hit appearances, his true test came in mid-April when first baseman Kazuhiro Kiyohara was sidelined with a side injury.
Saito was assigned to fill the huge hole at first base, and he let no one down. Until the All-Star break in mid-July, Saito was averaging .324, going 34-for-105 — including four home runs — with 23 RBIs.
Though he may lack the power and awe-inspiring presence Kiyohara takes to the plate, Saito has proved he can contribute with his bat.
His stellar first half seemed to come as a pleasant surprise to many. However, Saito deserves a lot more credit than as just a young-gun, one-hit wonder.
Back in 1995, Saito joined the Giants straight out of Yokohama High School as the club’s fourth draft pick. Yomiuri’s No. 1 choice that year was Junichi Kawahara, who has been the team’s indispensable closer this season.
Saito made his pro debut in 1997, when he made 32 appearances with the top team. Over the following years, he spent most of his time in the minors. Throughout seven seasons in the Eastern League, he never batted below .250 — his highest average being .315 in 2001.
Although he had very little playing time with the top team, in those limited opportunities he showed early on what a skillful batter he was.
He has exceptional hand-eye coordination. His batting is almost artistic. He is also an effective outfielder with speed and a strong throwing arm.
With all this going for him, it seemed natural that he would eventually become a key player on the team.
But it also seemed that the star-studded Yomiuri lineup — with more free-agent stars joining every year — was making it nearly impossible for a talented player like Saito to climb the ladder, regardless of whether he was up to it or not.
Saito, however, had the composure to survive the tough circumstances.
“Back then, I used to wish that I would get more playing time (in the top team),” he said, before modestly adding, “I understood that it was because of my lack of ability that I wasn’t (given more opportunity).”
Saito’s strength at the plate is his bat control, using a compact swing to loft the ball into left field. The opposite-field slap-hitter has, however, pulled the ball into right field on many occasions this season, and this has added to his batting performance.
He still has the finesse, but he has clearly improved his ability to connect for a clean hit into right field. All four of his homers were driven into the right-field bleachers with a beautiful flowing swing. Twenty of his 32 hits were also hit to right field.
“Well, yes, until now I used to try and hit the ball without swinging the bat completely,” Saito explained. “But during the offseason last year, I started lifting weights and as a result it increased my bat speed and I think that helped.”
Not that he has changed his philosophy at the plate.
“I don’t regard myself a home-run hitter or anything. Center field is still the place I will be aiming for.”
He added, however, with a smile: “Of course, if anything easy comes along, then you can be sure I will pull with all my might.”
The Giants have picked up where they left off before the All-Star break, winning six of their first seven games to start the second half of the season. And, just like the team, Saito is also ready to roll.
“I think my performance so far has been satisfactory. I was able to put up good numbers during the first half and hopefully I can keep it up during the latter half of the year,” he said.
And if he does, it won’t be long before this Saito truly makes a name for himself.
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