It’s been a decade since the Tokyo Yakult Swallows’ last pennant and Japan Series title, but the leadership and experience of veteran Shinya Miyamoto is as precious as anything else for the Central League-leading ballclub.
Yet Miyamoto humbly rejects the idea that he’s leading the young team.
Asked what he tries to do to guide the Swallows, whose last championship came in 2001, the 40-year-old infielder quickly responded, saying, “Nothing particularly.”
“I never thought I am leading the team, and I’ve never tried to,” Miyamoto said before Thursday’s game against the Hanshin Tigers at Jingu Stadium. “I’m just doing my part.”
Miyamoto is the last remaining Swallows player from the aforementioned championship team. That year, under manager Tsutomu Wakamatsu, he played 125 games as a regular shortstop. Despite what he says and although it is often not visible, Miyamoto’s influence on the team is huge.
With less than 20 games remaining in the regular season and the second-place Chunichi Dragons trying to shrink the deficit and win the pennant, Tokyo Yakult has been forced to play every game with a monkey on its back.
And this is exactly when the Swallows players and manager Junji Ogawa need Miyamoto most. Miyamoto said that he has encouraged his teammates to perform their best, doing what they can do at the moment and not thinking too far ahead.
“We’re fortunate enough to be able to compete for the championship toward the end of the season,” Miyamoto said. “I told the guys to play one game at a time. That means, whether we win or lose, once the game is over, we need to focus on the next (one).”
Miyamoto is not just an emotional prop for the Swallows, who have been on top of the league standings since May 31. He is also one of their most relevant players, offensively and defensively.
Mostly batting sixth in the lineup, he has missed just three games this year, batting .291 with two homers and 33 RBIs through Thursday. At third base, the eight-time Golden Glove winner has committed just one error.
Slugger Wladimir Balentien said that Miyamoto, who also exhibited his leadership in two Olympics and the 2006 World Baseball Classic, acts as the chief support for the team.
“He’s won a championship and been to a Japan Series,” Balentien said. “His leadership means a lot for this team. When guys are not doing great, he just talks to you and give you a lot of advice.
“He tells you, ‘You don’t have to panic, everything’s all right. He knows how to play the game and how to win the game. I love to have him on this team.”
In Tuesday’s game against the Tigers, Shingo Kawabata, one of Yakult’s most prominent rising stars, belted a go-ahead, sixth-inning grand slam. That moment, Miyamoto came out of the dugout and exaggeratedly pumped his fist into the air to show his pleasure, which was an unusual act for the composed man.
“We’ve been playing every game to win to death, so that came out just naturally,” Miyamoto said.
Miyamoto, who calls himself an old-schooler, has lately relied on grit more than technical matters in order to beat others.
“When it comes down to this point (of the season), that’s the thing you need most,” he said.