When a slugger swings so hard and misses, it’s often a good sign.
Samurai Japan power hitter Sho Nakata is in that state right now.
“I’m trying to have my swing right now,” said the 27-year-old, after a 7-1 win over China in Pool B of the World Baseball Classic at Tokyo Dome on Friday night. Nakata belted a home run off right-handed starter Quan Gan in the contest, giving him homers in back-to-back games in the tournament.
“I think I’ve been able to do that lately,” he said.
Different from hitters that hit for average, a slugger can get credit when he goes 1-for-4 with his only hit a long ball that does crucial damage to his opponent.
Nakata, a Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters star, is one of the few Samurai Japan hitters who are asked to pose a threat to other teams due to their power-hitting ability.
Nakata had struggled at the plate for the majority of the run-up to the WBC, including in some exhibition games with the Fighters, before the global tourney.
But Team Japan’s warm-up game against the Hanshin Tigers in Osaka on March 3 snapped his slump.
In that game at Kyocera Dome, Nakata blasted a solo shot into the left-field bleachers in the seventh inning off Tigers newcomer and Dominican Roman Mendez.
After the game, Nakata revealed that he received a tip from hitting coach Atsunori Inaba, a former Fighters teammate, and it gave him some breathing room at bat and helped him launch the dinger.
“(The Hanshin pitchers) were pitching inside to me, but (Inaba) told me that I didn’t have to try to hit them inside the field,” said Nakata, who played for Koji Yamamoto’s Japan squad but had no homers in the 2013 WBC. “He said like, ‘You can swing harder and it’s OK to hit fouls.’ I’ve got to swing as hard as I can. I was given really good advice.”
Having been removed from the cleanup and assigned to bat fifth in the Japan lineup because of previous mediocre performances in international contests, hitting behind Yokohama BayStars’ Yoshitomo Tsutsugo has made a difference for Nakata.
“I’d hit behind Go (Tsutsugo) in the Premier 12 (in 2015), so I don’t feel anything weird hitting in the spot,” said Nakata, an eight-year veteran who has 161 career homers in NPB. “Obviously, he’s such a great hitter and it makes me step up to the plate with a more relaxed mindset.”
Physically, Nakata entered this year having retooled his body with hard workouts in the gym and voluntary training overseas.
“I really feel good with my physical condition,” he said. “I think (off-season training) has paid off.”
Inaba had said that Japan would not get its offense going unless Nakata comes through. But as Japan wrapped up the first round with a perfect 3-0 record, he said with a smile, “I don’t have anything to say on our hitting now.”
Nakata said that he wants to keep doing what he’s done so far during the WBC and swing at the first pitch when he thinks he can smack it.
“I’ve been able to go aggressively at the plate,” Nakata said. “When the game is tied or in a situation like that, of course I have to use my brain a little more. Otherwise, I can swing my bat thinking as if I don’t mind getting struck out.
As far as pitches are coming (that) I feel I can hit, I’ll swing at them.”