Usually one of the main players for his club, Seiichi Uchikawa has been given just one at-bat per game for his country during the World Baseball Classic, as a lethal weapon coming off the bench as a pinch hitter.
In Japan’s nail-biting 8-5 victory over Cuba on Tuesday night at Tokyo Dome, the 34-year-old lived up to expectations by masterfully making contact with a breaking ball thrown by right-hander Miguel Lahera into right-field foul territory for a sacrifice fly to drive in the game-winning run in the bottom of the eighth.
After the game, Japan manager Hiroki Kokubo said he hesitated in sending Uchikawa in as a pinch hitter because Seiji Kobayashi has played a significant role as the team’s regular catcher and had had a pair of hits in the game. But the skipper ended up going with 16-year veteran Uchikawa, a former MVP for the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks.
“We needed some courage to send Uchikawa in for Kobayashi,” Kokubo said. “But we made up our mind there.”
Uchikawa said after the game that he steps up to the plate with a different state of mind depending on the situation. But in this particular case in Tuesday’s contest, he felt that he definitely had to get the job done to provide his team with a much-needed run.
“I was sent out there while Kobayashi had had two hits,” said Uchikawa. “That means our manager took a chance by putting me in there. When your manager gives it a shot and you fail, you let your team down. So I was really focused.”
Imagine the massive pressure on your shoulders in that situation. Especially for someone that everybody considers to be a hit machine like Uchikawa, a two-time batting champion and a likely future Hall of Famer.
But, obviously, pinch hitting is not Uchikawa’s usual role. During the season, the Oita Prefecture native is constantly given four at-bats every day.
Admitting the difficulty of taking the role, however, Uchikawa said that hitting a baseball is a difficult thing regardless of whether you play as a starter or a pinch hitter.
“My mind-set is to try to have a hit,” said Uchikawa, a right-handed hitter who hits to the opposite side of the field as well as anyone in Japan. “That’s no different.”
And it is definitely a good thing to have a dependable man who has phenomenal hitting skills like him on the Japan team, which improved to 5-0 in the WBC with the win over Cuba and moved closer to the final round in Los Angeles.
Meanwhile, one might think Uchikawa’s younger teammates had asked him for advice since the team entered training camp in Miyazaki late last month. But, according to Uchikawa, that has not really been the case.
“You know, these guys are usually the main guys on their respective teams,” said Uchikawa, who is the second-oldest player on the Samurai Japan roster behind Norichika Aoki. “Without me saying something to them, they get positive results anyway. They seem more reliable than I was when I was younger.”
Uchikawa, a career .310 hitter, is playing in his third straight WBC, but he was a starting outfielder in 2009 and 2013. But he is not grumbling about his position and is just trying to contribute to the team as best he can.
“It’s tougher (for the players who have started in this WBC),” Uchikawa responded, when asked if it is difficult for him not knowing when he will get his at-bat as a pinch hitter. “I’m just trying to cheer up our teammates from the bench. I feel happy to be part of this Samurai Japan team.”
Kokubo, himself a former Hawks star, appreciates Uchikawa’s play-for-the-team demeanor, which sets the tone for the squad.
“He usually hits in the cleanup spot,” Kokubo said. “But he plays all-out in every single game, not complaining about his pinch-hitting role at all. I think his teammates get a lot of inspiration from him.”