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Can Naoki ‘The Flea’ Nakahigashi extend his career?

by Wayne Graczyk

Happy New Year to all Baseball Bullet-In readers, and let the countdown begin. Just 24 days until the Japanese pro ball clubs begin spring training camps on the way to opening day of the regular season on March 31.

Ever heard of “Steve Blass Disease?”

How about “Steve Sax Syndrome?”

Blass was the ace of the Pittsburgh Pirates pitching staff who compiled won-loss records of 15-8 in 1971 (when he was also a World Series hero) and 19-8 in 1972. His ERA figures for those years were 2.85 and 2.49, respectively.

Clearly, he was one of the best pitchers in the major leagues. In 1973, however, he seemingly forgot how to pitch. His stats read 3-9 with a 9.85 ERA and, a year later, he was out of baseball at age 32. Blass’ sudden downfall was not attributed to injury but a “breakdown of basic mechanics,” and the term “Steve Blass Disease” is now applied to any pitcher who suffers a similar fate.

“Steve Sax Syndrome” is the fielder’s equivalent of the condition, named after the former Los Angeles Dodgers second baseman. After making all the routine plays earlier in his big league career, Sax suddenly and inexplicably could not make the regular toss to first base after fielding a grounder. He committed a career-high 30 errors in 1983, and a new baseball term was born. (Sax played in the big leagues until 1994.)

A malady for a batter who apparently just lost his ability to hit might be “Kenta Kurihara Sickness.” A top Central League slugger and the No. 4 hitter for the Hiroshima Carp between 2007 and 2011, Kurihara has retired as an active player after five frustrating years of trying — and failing — to regain his skills. His name appeared on the Nikkan Sports paper’s year-end “Sayonara Pro Yakyu” list of players hanging up their spikes.

Then-Carp manager Marty Brown did not hesitate to install the 25-year-old Kurihara as his cleanup man in 2008 after Takahiro Arai left Hiroshima for the Hanshin Tigers as a free agent.

“Kurihara is ready to assume that role and will be very productive,” Brown had said during training camp that spring. He was right.

Playing all 144 games in 2007, Kurihara belted 25 home runs, had 92 RBIs and batted .310. The following season, his first in the cleanup slot, and again not missing any games, he posted stats of 23, 103, .332. He also hit well in 2009 (and played with the World Baseball Classic champion Japan team) and 2010.

In 2011, Kurihara once again played the full schedule and hit 17 homers, knocked in 87 and hit for an average of .293. That would be his last good season.

Sure, there were some nagging injuries that may have contributed to his ineffectiveness but, even after regaining his health, Kurihara could not recapture the swing that had made him one of the most feared hitters in the Central League.

He played 21 games in 2012 and 24 in 2013 for the Carp but hit no home runs, and his batting averages those years were .211 and .203. He spent all of 2014 and 2015 on the Carp farm team, and the Hiroshima manager in ’14, Kenjiro Nomura, could not explain Kurihara’s mysterious incompetence.

“There’s no way I can bring him up to the first team,” said Nomura midway through the 2014 season. “He isn’t even playing well on the farm club. We have no idea what happened to him.”

Kurihara was transferred to the Pacific League’s Rakuten Eagles for the 2016 season but again failed to make it to the varsity roster. He played 47 games for the Eagles’ Eastern League club, batting only .188 with four homers and 15 RBIs.

At 35, he’s finished, but the Yamagata Prefecture native will remain in the baseball world as a farm team coach with the Eagles.

Another name on the Nikkan Sports “Sayonara” list was that of Naoki Nakahigashi. Drafted as a catcher-outfielder by the Carp in 2006, he was a No. 5 pick, and Brown gave him the nickname “The Flea,” being he was one of the smallest players in Japanese baseball, standing just 170 cm tall and weighing but 72 kg.

His “sales point” was his speed, and he actually spent most of his career with the Carp as a pinch runner. He had no power. During his first six seasons as a pro, Nakahigashi never hit a home run, and I can recall a conversation I had in May of 2013 with Carp pitcher Bryan Bullington. It was just prior to the revelation the ball used in NPB games had been revitalized after two seasons of “dead ball” play.

Home runs were suddenly leaving the parks again with great frequency, and that was the year Yakult Swallows slugger Wladimir Balentien would set a new Japanese baseball record with 60 slams. I asked Bullington if he thought the lively ball had been brought back and no one said anything.

“It sure looks that way,” said Bullington, as batters were hitting opposite field homers as in pre-2011 days, and even pitchers were belting an occasional home run as they had done in 2010 and before.

“Well, if ‘The Flea’ hits one, we’ll know for sure,” I said.

Bullington laughed and agreed. A few days later, The Flea hit one, and it was no cheap shot. The lefty-hitting Nakahigashi blasted one deep into the stands at Hiroshima’s Mazda Zoom Zoom Stadium. He homered once more in 2014.

The Nikkan Sports lists the future of The Flea as undecided, but, at 35, it is unlikely he will continue as an active player with another club. He goes out with a 10-year career average of .233 and 16 RBIs to go along with his two homers.

“Kenta Kurihara Sickness” and “The Flea.” A phrase and a nickname to be added to your Japanese baseball lexicon.

Contact Wayne Graczyk at: Wayne@JapanBall.com