Baseball / Japanese Baseball

Easygoing Swallows skipper Manaka guides club's climb from worst to first

by Jason Coskrey

Staff Writer

Mitsuru Manaka is still playing it cool. Nothing, not even a banner season in which he’s already won two titles and stands four wins away from a third, can shake the Tokyo Yakult Swallows manager’s calm, cool demeanor it seems.

“I’m not gonna lie to you, he’s relaxed,” Swallows slugger Wladimir Balentien said during the team’s practice session on Friday afternoon at Yafuoku Dome. “He hasn’t said anything; just go out there and play guys. He hasn’t created any pressure or anything.”

Manaka may be a rookie manager, but he handled his first Japan Series eve like a true veteran. He was collected during the manager’s meeting when denying a request by Fukuoka Softbank Hawks skipper Kimiyasu Kudo that both teams name their probable starters the day before each game. Manaka gave a curt, but polite, refusal and knew the rules when he brought up that both managers have to agree for the system to be in place.

Later, he joked that there was a Softbank logo on the wall when he entered the conference room for his pre-series news conference, and cracked a few more at the end of Yakult’s practice.

Manaka hasn’t put any pressure on his players probably because it doesn’t look like he’s feeling any himself. That was the case during the Central League Climax Series and nothing seems to have changed — even if the enormity of the stage has.

“He gives us space, so that we be ourselves (and) can play the game the way we do,” Balentien said. “That’s why those guys had great success this year (Balentien missed most of the year with an injury), because he hasn’t put any pressure on them. He just let them play.”

Manaka was on four Japan Series winners during his time with Yakult — from 1993-2008. Those titles came under two managers, Katsuya Nomura in ′93, ′95 and ′97, and Tsutomu Wakamatsu in 2001. Nomura was more demonstrative in the dugout, though not overly so, while Wakamatsu was usually even-keeled.

“I didn’t pick up any tips from them,” Manaka said on Friday. “The atmosphere in the Japan Series is unique and tense. Those managers tried not to let it affect them. I also try not to show my emotions to my players.”

Manaka took the reins at Yakult from Junji Ogawa after the latter had overseen consecutive last-place finishes. While things were rough early — times were tough for every CL team early — Manaka kept the Birds firmly in position to make a run at the pennant. When the team finally pushed forward into first place, it never looked back and continued to play at a high level as it clinched the CL pennant and Climax Series crown.

Manaka was more than a caretaker. He shook up the lineup in July, moving the dynamic Tetsuto Yamada from first to third for good, a switch that’s paid off for both player and team.

“It wasn’t about Yamada,” Manaka said. “It was about the balance of the team. We achieved that. We used him as a leadoff batter, then in the third spot. He has numbers befitting a leadoff man, a No. 3 hitter, or even a cleanup hitter. It’s up to how we can get balance in the team.”

He also put one of his best hitters, CL batting champion Shingo Kawabata, in the No. 2 hole, bucking a recent trend among Japanese managers to fill that spot in the lineup with a banjo hitter who can lay down a bunt.

“Pitchers have to hit during the season,” Manaka explained. “It gets weak at the bottom of the batting order. So we put a fast guy in the top spot and a guy who can be a bridge to the next batters at No. 2.”

Swallows fans are hoping Manaka has a little magic left to wield against the powerful Hawks. He’s planning to approach the series as he would any other. On Friday, he said his focus was on Saturday’s game only.

“I like to take it one game at a time,” Manaka said. “I never think about how many games we can lose. We do our best game-by-game.”