LaRocca provides even more punch to lineup of Swallows


The Hanshin Tigers have their “JFK” pitching relay, but now the Tokyo Yakult Swallows can counter with their “LIRR” quartet of sluggers. No, it’s not the Long Island Railroad, but second baseman Greg LaRocca, third sacker Akinori Iwamura, left fielder Alex Ramirez and first baseman Adam Riggs.

LaRocca is the newcomer, moving in after two injury-plagued seasons with the Hiroshima Carp, and he is expected to solidify the powerful lineup, occupying the No. 5 slot in new manager Atsuya Furuta’s batting order and following Iwamura and Ramirez.

So far in the exhibition games, Riggs has been batting second, but he may be moved to sixth when Iwamura and leadoff man Yasuchika Aoki return from World Baseball Classic duties. Hopefully, Iwamura will not miss too much action after pulling a hamstring in the March 15 WBC game against South Korea.

Whatever order in which they hit, though, it’s certain to make for a tough alignment sure to give headaches to the opposing pitchers.

I made the observation a few weeks ago that all four LIRR guys have the potential to hit 40 home runs this season. Three of them already have turned that trick: Ramirez had 40 bombs in 2003, Iwamura 44 in 2004 and LaRocca 40 with the Carp two years ago.

Riggs hit 14 last year but did not play as a regular until mid-season, and his career high is 29, hit for Triple-A Salt Lake in the Angels organization the year before last.

This combination reminds me of the four-man slugging crew of the 1959 Washington Senators when Harmon Killebrew belted 42 homers, Jim Lemon slammed 33, Bob Allison cranked out 30 and Roy Sievers, in the twilight of his career, added 21.

Another foursome that comes to mind is the Hanshin Tigers 1985 version of murderer’s row: Randy Bass (54 home runs), Masayuki Kakefu (40) Akinobu Okada (35) and Akinobu Mayumi (34). That’s when Koshien Stadium still had its “Lucky Zone,” an area between a wire fence and the stands in left- and right-center field into which many a fly ball fell for a homer.

It should also be pointed out that, while the 1985 Hanshin club won the Japan Series, the ’59 Senators, managed by Cookie Lavagetto (there’s a name from the past), finished last in the then-eight-team American League.

LaRocca thinks the 2006 Swallows will be more like the Tigers from 21 years ago.

“This would be the year (for the Swallows) to win (the pennant),” he said, pointing out that, not only does Yakult have a terrific lineup, but also a great pitching staff made even better by two guys returning from major league stints.

“We’ve got (Kazuhisa) Ishii and (Shingo) Takatsu coming back, and that’s going to take some of the pressure off (Ryota) Igarashi and (Hirotoshi) Ishii,” Yakult’s ace set-up man and closer, respectively.

LaRocca, who played first, second and third with Hiroshima, says he could have signed with a couple of other Japanese teams but wants to play second base, and the Swallows seemed the best fit.

Jingu Stadium is also a home run hitter’s park, although not quite as cozy as the home field he left behind.

On the possibility of belting 40 round-trippers again, the straight-away hitting LaRocca says, “That was in Hiroshima,” referring to that bandbox of a ballpark where the center field fence is only 115 meters (377 feet) from home plate.

“I figure that stadium gave me an extra 10 homers in a season.”

OK, we’ll expect 30 this year, then.

Besides winning the Central League pennant, LaRocca’s main goal this year will be to remain healthy. Two years ago, despite a 40-homer, 101 RBI, .328, All-Star season with the Carp, he was bothered by a nagging hamstring injury.

In 2005, he also had trouble with the “hammie” early in the year, then missed a good deal of playing time later after breaking his left thumb. Those injuries limited his season to just 80 games, but he still hit .303 with 18 homers and 56 RBIs.

Projected over the full 146-game CL schedule, those power totals would have been 33 home runs and 102 RBIs.

No doubt about it; the addition of Greg LaRocca will make baseball at Jingu more interesting and exciting this summer. Expect the fans in the Swallows cheering section to open those trademark green vinyl scoring umbrellas often in 2006.

The Birds have their new name (adding the “Tokyo” designation), a most popular freshman manager in Furuta and, on March 22, they will unveil new uniforms, four of them which will be worn by No. 1 (Iwamura), 2 (Riggs), 3 (Ramirez) and 29 (LaRocca), the LIRR fence-busters.

Finally this week, fan Brian Moore of San Diego is enjoying the World Baseball Classic in Southern California and wrote a few words about “The Play” (and subsequent questionable call) that tainted the U.S. victory over Japan on March 12.

Brian says:

“I can’t believe Japan got so wronged. I was sick to my stomach during that whole thing, but the atmosphere for that game and the other games as well is so intense.

“This (World Baseball) Classic is a wonderful idea, and the games have been ridiculously exciting.”

Commissioner Bud Selig and the others at Major League Baseball will be happy to hear that last remark.

Contact Wayne Graczyk by e-mail at: Wayne@JapanBall.com