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Kiyomiya shows off power on farm

by Jason Coskrey

After a slow start to his first season as a professional, Kotaro Kiyomiya provided fans with a small glimpse of what made him the most sought-after player in last fall’s NPB draft.

The Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters rookie hit his first two pro home runs on Friday during a ni-gun contest against the Chiba Lotte Marines’ farm team. The 18-year-old Kiyomiya hit both off Lotte’s Yuji Nishino, who has 16 wins and 86 saves on the ichi-gun level, and finished the game with three hits and six RBIs.

He went deep again on Sunday, picking up home run No. 3 in another game against the Marines.

Kiyomiya could be on his way to a promotion to the top team if he can keep hitting at a high level on the farm team.

He at least has the attention of top-team manager Hideki Kuriyama, who was informed of Kiyomiya’s Friday performance before a game that night in Sapporo.

“I wasn’t worried about him hitting if his body is healthy,” Kuriyama was quoted as saying by the Asahi Shimbun. “Kotaro was probably also relieved to get the first one. Now he can move forward.”

No player drew more attention than Kiyomiya during the draft last year. Kiyomiya, who set an unofficial high school record with 111 home runs, was named by seven teams during the first round of the draft, with the Fighters winning the ensuing lottery for his rights.

He struggled during exhibition games during the spring and didn’t fare much better once the ni-gun season began. Even Friday’s 3-for-5 effort was only enough to lift his average to .208 in 24 at-bats.

He’s still getting his feet under him, but has made an early appeal for the team to keep him on the radar for a call-up sometime down the road.

Roll the Dice

Many fans were probably wondering how Daisuke Matsuzaka would fare with the Chunichi Dragons this season. Through two games, at least, it’s been so-so, with no disasters yet.

Matsuzaka was shaky in his season debut against the Yomiuri Giants on April 5. Making his first start in Japan since 2006, Matsuzaka allowed three runs — two earned — over five innings.

He bounced back nicely in his second outing on Thursday, throwing seven innings and allowing just two runs, one of which was unearned, in a loss to the Hanshin Tigers.

Matsuzaka hasn’t been a starter in Japan since his pre-MLB days with the Seibu Lions, and hasn’t posted a win since 2006. His only appearance since returning to Japan in 2015 was in relief for the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks for an inning near the end of the 2016 season.

The 36-year-old righty threw 123 pitches on Friday, his most since throwing 126 for the Boston Red Sox in 2007, according to Sports Hochi.

Next man up

The Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks’ bullpen took a big hit last week, when closer Dennis Sarfate was taken off the active roster with plans to return to the U.S. to have his right hip examined.

Losing the “King of Closers” is bad enough, but the Hawks are also without injured reliever Sho Iwasaki who had elbow surgery earlier this month. The pair were a huge part of the SoftBank bullpen last year, with Sarafate converting an NPB-record 54 saves and Iwasaki racking up 40 holds in a club-record 72 appearances.

They’ll be replaced by various players, but the onus in the pen may fall to Yuito Mori, who had 33 holds in 2017. He’s moved into the closer’s role for now and has already recorded a pair of saves.

“So proud of this guy,” Sarfate tweeted after Mori’s first save on Wednesday. “He will do a great job while I’m gone.”