Baseball / Japanese Baseball | NPB NOTEBOOK

NPB stars look to build momentum in spring

by Jason Coskrey

Staff Writer

While most baseball fans know spring numbers should be taken with a grain of salt, some players make it hard to remember at times. Because however meaningless the actual numbers are during this time of year, the process is still fun to watch.

One of the kings of spring this year is Alex Guerrero, the hard slugging outfielder the Yomiuri Giants signed in free agency during the offseason. After hitting 35 homers, and winning the Central League home run title, for the Chunichi Dragons in 2017, Guerrero burst out of the gates with a .333 average and five home runs in his first 10 spring games this year.

“Every home run plays a part in the team winning,” Guerrero said according to Sports Hochi on Friday.

The Giants were third in the CL with 113 home runs last season and are hoping Guerrero can help them move up the charts. Casey McGehee led the team with 18 in 2017.

“That’s something we didn’t have last year,” manager Yoshinobu Takahashi told Hochi of Guerrero’s home run ability. “I think something like that can change the atmosphere.”

The Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters’ Brandon Laird is also putting up nice power numbers. Laird, who hit a grand slam against the Tokyo Yakult Swallows on Saturday for his fourth homer of the spring, said he’s more focused on his approach at this time of the year.

“When I’m hitting (during spring training), it’s just seeing the ball, tracking, seeing pitches and having good at-bats,” he told The Japan Times. “Just trying to get those at-bats ready for the season. Defensively, just make sure my legs and my body are feeling good. I don’t really worry about the numbers. I’m just trying to have good at-bats consistently.”

On the mound, Orix Buffaloes fans are likely enthused by what they’ve seen from pitchers Yuki Nishi, and Taisuke Yamaoka.

Nishi had a rough 2017, going 5-6 with a 3.44 ERA and a fielding independent pitching average of 3.80 before a line drive to the hand ended his season in August. So far, Nishi has pitched 12⅓ scoreless innings this spring.

Yamaoka is a young right-hander the Buffaloes need to step up this season. The 22-year-old was 8-11 with 3.74 ERA, but 2.87 FIP, in 24 starts last season. He’s also had a decent start to the spring, having allowed two runs, with nine strikeouts, over his first nine innings.

There are plenty of other players having good springs also. Among them are Hanshin Tigers pitcher Takumi Akiyama, who had 12 strikeouts and no runs allowed in his 12 innings through Sunday, and the Buffaloes’ Yuhei Mune, who had four home runs to his name.

This time is year is a period of hope, and good numbers during spring games fill fans with optimism that the good times can keep on rolling when the games, and the numbers, actually start to count on March 30.

Now pitching

The Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters are adding some Olympic flair to their season-opening series against the Seibu Lions at Sapporo Dome.

The Fighters announced late last week that speedskater Nana Takagi, who won a pair of gold medals during the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, will throw out the first pitch for the season opener on March 30.

The opening game festivities will also feature a video message from LS Kitami, the Hokkaido-based female curling team that claimed bronze for Japan during the Pyeongchang Games, capturing the nation’s first-ever Olympic curling medal.

Takagi will pass the torch to Winter Olympic ski jumping bronze medalist Sara Takanashi, who will perform the honors on April 1.

Takagi, Takanashi and each member of the curling team (skip Satsuki Fujisawa, third Chinami Yoshida, lead Yurika Yoshida, second Yumi Suzuki and Mari Motohashi) are all natives of Hokkaido.

The Fighters will hand the ball to another gold medalist on April 7, when Nana’s younger sister Miho Takagi, who left Pyeongchang with a medal of each color, will throw out the first pitch before a game against the Chiba Lotte Marines at Tokyo Dome.

Miss me yet?

It may have only been a spring game, but Seibu Lions pitcher Hayato Takagi gave the Yomiuri Giants a taste of what could’ve been on Saturday.

Takagi went seven frames, allowing one run on four hits with five strikeouts against his former team.

Takagi is preparing for his first season with the Lions after spending his first three with the Giants. He was left unprotected after the Giants signed free agent Ryoma Nogami, formerly of the Lions, and Seibu swiftly snapped him up as a compensation pick.