Nioka proves value to Fighters in pivotal at-bat


Staff Writer

Once a Yomiuri Giants star shortstop, Tomohiro Nioka’s game is limited to minimum duties now.

Due to chronicle leg injuries over the last few years, he has not been able to field or even base-run when he gets on base. And the situation doesn’t seem like it will change for the reminder of his career.

The 36-year-old, however, can still do some damage against opponents to chip in for the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters with just one sharp swing as a pinch hitter.

That is exactly what he did in Wednesday’s opening game of the Pacific League Climax Series final stage against the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks at Sapporo Dome.

With the game tied at 2-2 in the bottom of the seventh inning, Nioka was sent to the plate by his manager, Hideki Kuriyama, and successfully drove in the eventual game-winning run off Hawks reliever Masahiko Morifuku in the Fighters’ 3-2 victory.

Bringing a win with his own bat in a playoff game would usually get him psyched up. But Nioka kept his calm and somewhat blunt attitude after the game.

“I wasn’t particularly looking for the pitch,” said Nioka, who hit .292 with a homer and nine RBIs in 54 at-bats as a pinch hitter this season. “I was only thinking to hit a pitch if it was hittable.”

Asked if his past experience, especially in big stages like the Japan Series, has helped him for his role, Nioka took a moment to think, and gave a vague answer to the reporters.

“I’ve played in numerous games,” said Nioka, who was the 2002 Japan Series MVP for the Giants. “But the situations are different depending on the game. For example, when you go to the plate with two outs in the ninth inning, it’s different.

“…So I couldn’t just say my past experience from the Japan Series and other playoff games have helped me or have not helped me.”

The poker-faced Nioka showed a grin toward his teammates in the dugout when he got to first base after he hit the above-mentioned RBI hit.

Journalists would say there’s nothing wrong with that. But Nioka regretted he did that.

“I was glad,” he said. “But soon I came to think as I got back in the bench that it’s only the first game and I shouldn’t have been pleased that much.”

Nioka is that type of a guy. But he still gets loud cheers from the home crowd every time he steps up to the plate when games are on the line.