Watanabe working to steer Lions in right directions


The Saitama Seibu Lions, often seen in the Pacific League Climax Series in recent years, are currently struggling to move out of the second division in the PL.

However, manager Hisanobu Watanabe thinks his team can shake off its problems and climb in the standings following the end of interleague play this week.

A shaky bullpen, lack of a consistent closer, a slow start by slugger Takeya Nakamura and the absence of much help by the team’s quartet of first-year foreign players are some of the reasons the Lions have been wallowing in the Pa League’s “B Class.”

Through games of Wednesday, Seibu was in fifth place, a percentage point behind the fourth-place Fukuoka Softbank Hawks. They were playing at four games below .500, nine games out of first place but just a game and a half in back of the third-place Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles.

Seibu began playing a lot better about midway through the interleague schedule, Nakamura got hot, and the Lions signed a veteran foreigner with lots of Pacific League experience who should be ready when same-league play resumes.

“Our players are easily motivated,” said Watanabe. “I can remind you we spent the first two months of last season in or near last place, but we came on to make the playoffs. I am confident we can do it again this year,” he said prior to a game against the Yomiuri Giants at Tokyo Dome on June 9.

The Lions actually qualified for the 2011 Climax Series on the final day of the season last October, edging the Orix Buffaloes for third place and the final CS berth. Seibu went on to defeat the second-place Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters in the first stage of the playoffs but lost to Softbank in the final stage.

This season, Watanabe’s club was able to retain the services of popular All-Star shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima after his posting for major league service and negotiations with the New York Yankees over the winter broke down, and he returned to Tokorozawa. Still, there was tough going throughout April and May.

Nakamura, the 2011 Pacific League home runs (48) and RBI leader (116) who hits fourth behind Nakajima, got off to a slow start, and only one of the four imported players has played regularly and made a significant contribution to the team’s performance. He is utility man Esteban German, who has batted .259 with 24 RBIs and 12 stolen bases while playing second base, third base and center field.

First baseman Chris Carter has been out since before opening day with knee problems, though he is back playing on the Seibu farm team, and relief pitchers Enrique Gonzalez and the situational lefty Randy Williams have been up and down. On June 6, the Lions announced the signing of infielder-outfielder Jose Ortiz, in hopes his bat and Japan experience will add punch to the lineup.

Watanabe’s starting pitchers have held the fort, led by younger right-handers Takayuki Kishi (6-5) and Kazuhisa Makita (4-5) and two veterans, southpaw Kazuhisa Ishii (6-2) and righty Fumiya Nishiguchi (4-1). The bullpen and its problems are another matter.

“There is no doubt about it,” said Watanabe. “Our relief pitching has been the team’s weakest point and the biggest problem; one we need to solve if we are going to make the postseason.”

It has been what might be described as “patchwork,” with different guys filling the various roles of one-point relief, pre-setup, setup and closer on a daily basis.

The talent is there, but each pitcher’s job needs to be defined, and someone is going to have to assume the work of the closer. At least four relievers have registered saves this season: Williams, Gonzalez, Micheal Nakamura and Hideaki Wakui, another story.

Wakui, once thought to be the successor as the Lions ace after Daisuke Matsuzaka left for the Boston Red Sox, was deactivated May 22 after an article about his private life alleging a fling with a Fukuoka hostess was published in a weekly Japanese magazine which, according to Kyodo News, caused the team’s managing director to say, “Wakui must reflect on how a pro ballplayer must conduct himself.”

Wakui held a news conference on Saturday apologizing for the situation.

A return to grace and effective pitching by Wakui would be a tremendous boost to Seibu’s playoff hopes and add to the other recent positive moves.

Nakamura picked up the long-ball stroke and has 12 homers since the interleague tournament began on May 16. Overall, he has 13 home runs and 44 RBIs through Wednesday’s games, putting him on pace for season totals of 35 and 120, respectively.

The slugger, however, was deactivated on Friday after injuring his shoulder against Hanshin on Thursday while making a diving catch.

The team is also excited about getting Ortiz, who has played seven seasons in Japan for three other Pa League clubs, the Orix BlueWave, Chiba Lotte Marines and Softbank.

Asked how he plans to use Ortiz, Watanabe said, “I think I will bat him fifth in the lineup (following Nakajima and Nakamura) and probably start him as our DH. He has had success in our league, and I expect he will be ready to play when the season resumes on June 22.”

Ortiz, a Dominican, has had home run seasons of 33 and 24 with Orix and 20 and 24 in Fukuoka.

One more important factor in the Seibu situation is Watanabe himself. A star pitcher for the Lions in their glory days of the late 1980s and early ’90s, he is a most media-friendly manager who has guided the team into the Climax Series in three of his four seasons at the helm, winning the PL pennant and Japan Series in his first year, 2008.

He acts and speaks with confidence, believing he can fix what is broken, inspire his players and lead them to another postseason appearance.

Contact Wayne Graczyk at: Wayne@JapanBall.com