It seemed, on the surface at least, to be with a palpable sense of early-season panic that Shinnosuke Abe was back behind the plate for the Yomiuri Giants during their series against the Hanshin Tigers over the weekend.
He might have been sore on Monday, but Abe looked like the cure to the Giants’ early-season ills for a couple of games. Pressed back into action with the team not playing well early, Abe played his part and it was enough to help lift the rest of the team around him just enough to make fans wonder if his return to catching will be brief, or permanent.
Abe might be the best catcher of his generation, certainly of the past eight to nine years, but he was supposed to be a first baseman now. That was the plan the Kyojin set in motion last season to save the 36-year old’s body from the grind of catching. Abe spent the entire offseason and spring training preparing to be the everyday first baseman, while the Giants made room for him by cutting loose Jose Lopez, who led the team with 22 home runs last season.
Yet manager Tatsunori Hara has already blown up that plan, for the moment at least, after watching Yomiuri struggle through the spring and the start of the regular season while getting nothing from the players supposed to vie for the catcher’s role, free-agent pickup Ryoji Aikawa (injured) and second-year Seiji Kobayashi (ineffective).
Perhaps the familiarity of Abe behind the plate had a soothing influence on the Kyojin, as they bounced back from being swept by the Chunichi Dragons by taking two of three from Hanshin. Abe worked well with most of the Yomiuri pitchers, especially on Sunday, when he guided rookie Hayato Takagi through a two-hit shutout.
Abe was a reliable presence defensively and also hit well, going 7-for-11 during the series.
It was a welcome smattering of good vibrations during a period when few things have gone according to plan.
When Yomiuri broke camp Feb. 1 in Miyazaki, pitchers Tomoyuki Sugano and Tetsuya Utsumi were supposed to duke it out for the opening day start; Abe was going to start breaking in his first-baseman’s glove; and Taishi Ota was going to be in the outfield and in the lineup everyday, with slugger Shuichi Murata possibly batting fourth.
Sugano opened the season on the mound, but Ota didn’t make the team out of spring training; Utsumi is injured; and Yomiuri’s opening-series rotation consisted of Sugano, a first-year foreign player and a rookie.
Murata was in the lineup at the start, but only after a spring demotion to the farm for poor play. Murata batted eighth on Saturday and Sunday, and is hitting .188 to start the season.
By the sixth game of the year, Yomiuri looked to be in slight disarray, with Abe back catching and Hirokazu Ibata, a veteran of over 1,800 games, playing just his 15th at first base, and on short notice at that (a consummate pro, Ibata was solid in the field in all three games against Hanshin).
It will be interesting to see how much longer Hara keeps Abe in the catcher’s role. Perhaps he didn’t have a contingency plan when things fell apart early, but the luxury of a marathon season, of which there are 134 games remaining, is that there is plenty of time to come up with a workable plan.
Abe is the best catcher on the roster, but if the goal is to keep him as healthy as possible, he should move back to first, leaving Aikawa, Kobayashi, or Kazunari Sanematsu to the catching duties. Aikawa and Sanematsu are veterans but offensive liabilities compared to Abe.
Kobayashi may have a high ceiling, but isn’t going to improve much from sitting on the bench. It might be better for him to get a few reps on the farm, or get back on the field with the top team and work out his issues, the approach the Tigers seem to be taking with Ryutaro Umeno.
The Giants’ season isn’t in peril, by any stretch, this early. But they were playing badly, and for a couple of games at least, it was old, reliable, former captain Abe to the rescue.