Infielders Kikuchi, Escobar showcase defensive skills in MLB-Japan All-Star Series

by Jason Coskrey

Staff Writer

One thing an event like the MLB-Japan All-Star Series does is allow fans to ask the question, what if? What if this NPBer or that NPBer was in the major leagues and vice versa.

Or better yet, what if Hiroshima Carp second baseman Ryosuke Kikuchi and Kansas City Royals shortstop Alcides Escobar were playing in the same middle infield?

That’s a question that will probably continue to go unanswered, but the duo have put on a show for their respective squads during the series between Samurai Japan and the MLB All-Stars.

Kikuchi and Escobar have been filling highlight reels all season with their slick fielding, delighting fans of their two clubs. Kikuchi played all 144 games for the Carp this year, all at second, and finished the year with a .987 fielding percentage. He was an easy Central League Golden Glove selection for the second straight year and is only getting better.

“For me, the first step is the key point,” Kikuchi told The Japan Times before Game 4 on Sunday at Tokyo Dome. “I want to get a good first step and pick up the ball. Lastly, I try to get to the ball and make a clean play.”

Sometimes it seemed like there was no real estate between first and second beyond Kikuchi’s range, and his speed and sure hands frustrated more than one hitter as he swallowed up hard-to-reach balls throughout the season. He’s brought that same zeal to the series against the major leaguers, with a strong showing in the first three games.

“He’s playing the ball hard,” Escobar said of Kikuchi. “He’s playing the ball really good. I’m enjoying watching that guy play like that.”

Escobar was no slouch himself for the American League champion Royals.

Like Kikuchi, he played in every game, 162 in the majors, and ended the season with a .976 fielding percentage. Escobar could make difficult plays look routine and was also a reliable cutoff man for the Kansas City outfielders.

“He’s amazing,” Kikuchi said. “He’s a dynamic fielder. I want to study him and one day become like that.” Both players were up to their usual tricks in Game 3 of the MLB-Japan All-Star Series, which Japan won 4-0 behind a combined no-hitter by starter Takahiro Norimoto and relievers Yuki Nishi, Kazuhisa Makita and Yuji Nishino.

“Those guys have good pitching,” Escobar said of Japan. “They did their job.”

Early in that contest, Escobar went deep into the hole to dig out a grounder and, jumping off his back foot, fired to first for the out as a sold-out crowd oohed and aahed.

In the ninth inning, with a Samurai Japan no-hitter two outs away, Kikuchi robbed Carlos Santana of the MLB team’s first hit by charging hard to his right, sliding to field the ball and popping up to throw Santana out at first.

The two players seem appreciative of the other’s talent, and with one more game left in the series, on Tuesday in Sapporo, and an exhibition in Naha, Okinawa, on Nov. 20, they have a chance to put their talents on display one last time in 2014.

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