Infield replacements making presence felt

by Wayne Graczyk

Friday marked the 75th anniversary of Lou Gehrig’s “Luckiest Man” speech delivered at Yankee Stadium on July 4, 1939. Strange that one so sick at the age of 37 is known as a baseball iron man who played while healthy in 2,130 consecutive games, and that streak began when Gehrig was inserted in the New York lineup on June 2, 1925, because the Yanks’ regular first baseman was not feeling well.

Wally Pipp, so the story goes, came down with a headache on that day, so manager Miller Huggins replaced Pipp with Gehrig. The newcomer started hitting right away, sustained a high level of play and remained as the Yankees’ first sacker every day for the next 14 years. He went on to become one of the greatest players in the history of the game.

While not quite as dramatic, injuries or batting slumps experienced by a trio of Central League infielders here in Japan opened the door for fill-ins who apparently wanted to play so badly, they stepped up their efforts, becoming stars on their teams and achieving status among the Top 10 hitters in the CL.

Those they replaced have been unable to reclaim their jobs, and we can call it the case of the lost and found second basemen.

The first one found was Ryosuke Kikuchi of the Hiroshima Carp. Manager Kenjiro Nomura put Kikuchi in the lineup in March of last year after the regular second sacker, Akihiro Higashide, severely tore ligaments in his left knee during spring training.

Higashide had been the team’s leadoff man and a pretty good slap hitter, base stealer and defensive stalwart for several seasons until the injury. He missed the entire 2013 season, while Kikuchi wound up playing 141 games of the 144 on the schedule.

Though he batted only .247, Kikuchi hit 11 home runs and drove in 57. This season, he’s even better. As of Thursday, the 24-year-old Kikuchi was the sixth-leading hitter in the Central League with a .316 average and has played in every game so far of the 2014 campaign.

Former Hiroshima manager Marty Brown, who guided the team from 2006-09, was back in Japan last week in his current capacity as a Pacific Rim scout for the Washington Nationals and said he is impressed by Kikuchi, who joined the team in 2012.

“I wish I had had him while I was managing the Carp,” said Brown. “I’ve seen a few Carp games this season, and Kikuchi is a very aggressive player, hits well, has speed, turns a great double play and is just a good all-around player.”

Higashide, meanwhile, has played all of 2014 on the Carp’s Western League farm team, all but lost and forgotten.

Then there is Tetsuto Yamada who assumed the second base position for the Yakult Swallows a third of the way through the 2013 season when regular Hiroyasu Tanaka was deactivated from the first-team roster. Yamada eventually played 94 games, hitting .283 and established himself at the position.

This year, Yamada is the third-leading hitter in the CL at .328, tops the league with 22 doubles and has hit 10 home runs with 41 RBIs. He also has played every game so far in 2014 and is one of the few Swallows to stay off the injury list. Yamada is still 21 but will turn 22 on July 16.

Tanaka has returned but his appearances have been limited to pinch hitting or filling in for disabled teammates at third or first base, as Yamada has a lock on the second base job.

The third “findee” is Hiroki Uemoto, called into service for the Hanshin Tigers early this year. He went in for regular second baseman Tsuyoshi Nishioka during the season’s third game on March 30 after Nishioka and right fielder Kosuke Fukudome were involved in a horrific collision that required an ambulance to be driven onto the field to pick up Nishioka.

Uemoto has done the job, at least offensively. Through Thursday’s games, he was 11th on the Central League list of leading hitters with an even .300 average and has proven to be an effective leadoff man for Hanshin.

Nishioka sustained multiple injuries to his face and upper body during the crash three months ago and recently returned to action, playing as a reserve or getting a start at third base while watching Uemoto at second.

None of these guys — Kikuchi, Yamada or Uemoto — is going to become a Lou Gehrig but, like the “Iron Horse,” all three have so far made the most of the opportunity to play when a teammate ahead of them was unable to answer the call.

It makes me wonder how many more second-stringers currently warming Central and Pacific League team benches would become stars if only given the chance to play as a starter on a regular basis.

Contact Wayne Graczyk at: Wayne@JapanBall.com