NAGOYA — Maybe it’s because the Chunichi Dragons are the Central League pennant winners or maybe it’s the fact he’s facing off against the franchise where he became a star, but this Japan Series has brought out a kinder, gentler Hiromitsu Ochiai.
He’s socializing with the opposing manager before games, holding court with his former contemporaries-turned-TV analysts during batting practice and cracking grins left and right.
Just about the only thing that resembles the Ochiai of old is the No. 66 and his name on the back of his uniform. That and the way he, as usually is the case, finds a way to make all the right moves.
With the Marines riding a wave of momentum after marching through the Pacific League Climax Series and winning Game 1 of the Japan Series, Ochiai’s Dragons faced the prospect of an 0-2 deficit in the series with Games 3, 4 and 5 in Chiba.
So he tinkered with the starting lineup and coaxed a dominant performance out of his hitters in a 12-1 rout in Game 2 on Sunday.
“I couldn’t wait for some players to round into form,” Ochiai said. “They’re just not performing.”
He moved Hirokazu Ibata from sixth to second in the batting order, benching outfielder Hidenori Kuramoto, who was 0-for-3 in that spot in Game 1. Ochiai also benched right fielder Atsushi Fujii, who struck out three times in Game 1.
Kei Nomoto, who recorded a single while pinch-hitting for Kuramoto in Game 1, got the start in right and batted out of the six-hole. Kuramoto’s benching left a spot open in center field and rookie Yohei Oshima took over there and batted eighth.
The moves paid off, with Oshima driving in a pair of runs and Ibata and Nomoto each recording an RBI.
Sounding more like his old self after the game, Ochiai iterated he has no time for players who aren’t able to handle the pressure of the Japan Series.
“I don’t understand why they need to feel any pressure,” Ochiai said. “There are only two clubs left. I’m not saying I don’t want them to enjoy it, but they’ve got to manage.
“They have to help themselves; nobody will help them. They’ve got to create a path to improvement by themselves.”
The manager was such a great player in his heyday, he probably can’t grasp not being able to perform under pressure.
Ochiai was one of the best hitters Japanese baseball has ever seen, retiring with a career .311 average, 510 home runs and 1,564 RBIs over a 20-year career with the Lotte Orions, the Dragons, Yomiuri Giants and Nippon Ham Fighters.
He won three Triple Crowns, has the ninth-highest career average in NPB history and is tied with Hanshin Tigers star Tomoaki Kanemoto for 11th on the all-time list with 2,371 hits.
Enigmatic as a player and now as a manager, Ochiai has certain expectations when he puts his lineup out on the field.
While his charges performed to his liking on Sunday, Ochiai said that wouldn’t necessarily have any bearing on the starters for Game 3.
“I think this was the best batting order for this game,” Ochiai said. “I’ll decide the order for the next game during pre-game practice.”
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