When then-Yomiuri Giants shortstop Tomohiro Nioka tore his calf muscle during the 2008 season opener, a star was born.

In the year since taking over for the fallen Giants star, shortstop Hayato Sakamoto, is starting to live up to the hype.

At 22-10-2 the Giants have Japanese baseball’s best record and Sakamoto has been showing the way. Through Wednesday, he was leading the team with a .372 batting average and ranked in home runs (6, tied with Alex Ramirez) and RBIs (22).

The Kyojin’s place atop Japanese baseball wouldn’t be possible without Sakamoto, who has delivered in the clutch time and time again this year.

Already this season the 20-year-old has been dubbed “Mr. Senkindan” — a title reserved for players who exhibit great value to their teams, in some media circles, for his efforts in the clutch this season.

On May 2, he capped his first multiple home run game with a game-winning solo drive off Hanshin Tigers closer Kyuji Fujikawa. A few days later, on May 6, he ended a game against the Yokohama BayStars with a walk-off blast in the Giants’ 8-7 win.

In all, Sakamoto has driven in a run to give the Giants a lead they would not relinquish four times this month, with three of those coming in games the Giants won by a single run.

Sakamoto, who made the Central League All-Star team last year in his first full season, has been proficient with his glove as well with a handful of dazzling plays in the field to his credit.

Playing under the bright lights that come with playing for the Giants, Sakamoto has kept his poise and wits about him, seemingly at this point just enjoying the ride.

It’s a continuation of the growth that has been exhibited by the budding superstar since he burst onto the scene last year.

His first career home run was a grand slam against the Hanshin Tigers, which helped the Giants rout their archrivals 9-1 on April 6, 2008. That hit made him the youngest Central League player to hit a grand slam in a regular-season game.

Sakamoto’s final home run last season was a go-ahead shot in Game 7 of the Japan Series against the Seibu Lions, who would eventually rally to win the title.

The youngest Giant to start on Opening Day since Hideki Matsui in 1994, Sakamoto played all 144 games last year to help the Yomiuri claim the CL title.

He finished the season batting .257 with eight home runs and 43 RBIs. The Giants rewarded the young star with a single-digit uniform number to start the 2009 season, switching him from No. 61 on the team roster to No. 6.

Sakamoto entered the league to high expectations and was thrust into the fire early due to Nioka’s injury.

He suffered his fair share of growing pains last year, but was a valuable cog in the Yomiuri machine last season.

Now a year wiser, the young shortstop looks eager to take his place among the league’s elite.

I’m back: Chiba Lotte Marines second baseman Tadahito Iguchi may be back in Japanese baseball but he’s still putting up major league numbers.

Iguchi, who won a World Series with the Chicago White Sox in 2005, homered in the second inning of the Marines’ 7-0 domination of the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks on Wednesday.

The homer was the fourth in as many days for Iguchi, who has nine on the season. The second baseman also homered against the Hawks, for whom he played from 1997-2004 when the team was known as the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks, on Tuesday, and went deep against the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles on May 9 and 10.

Iguchi is batting .368 and has 28 RBIs in 31 games this season.

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