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Nakamura’s vintage run just what Lions need

by Jason Coskrey

For Takeya Nakamura and the Seibu Lions, the past week and half was just like old times, with the Lions’ lineup doing damage and the burly slugger’s bat roaring the loudest.

“Okawari-kun” went on a vintage, nearly record-setting run of power from Aug. 4-13. He began it with a home run against the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters and went on to go deep in each of the next five games to tie a Pacific League record.

The generally soft-spoken Nakamura was even in vintage form at the mic.

“Speaking of it being special, there isn’t anything to say,” Nakamura told the media after his sixth homer, on Aug. 10.

He was one shy of the NPB record for homers in consecutive games at the time, but that wasn’t enough to crack his steely facade.

“I’m not really aware of it,” he said. “If I get there, then I’ll have something to say,” he told Nikkan Sports

It was truly a throwback performance on and off the field.

Nakamura ended up falling one game short of joining NPB legends Sadaharu Oh and Randy Bass as the only players to homer in seven straight contests. As it stands, he’s still one of only 15 to homer in six straight.

Nakamura has batted .324 with six homers and 17 RBIs over the last eight games and helped the Lions slightly tighten their grip on the top spot in the Pacific League in the process. Seibu was 5-3 over that period, while the second-place Fighters were 3-4-1. Seibu currently has a five-game lead in the PL.

If Seibu goes on to win the pennant and cites this run as having been crucial to that, then it’s more than fitting Nakamura was at the center of it.

The veteran third baseman is one of the few pieces connecting the current Lions to the 2008 squad, which was the last to win the pennant and also won that season’s Japan Series.

Of the main pieces from that team, Nakamura and outfielder Takumi Kuriyama are the only ones left (current Lions catcher Ginjiro Sumitani only played in 46 games that season). Others play for different teams, such as pitchers Hideaki Wakui, the staff ace, and Takayuki Kishi, the 2008 Series MVP, and star shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima. Others, Kazuhisa Ishii, Yasuyuki Kataoka, G.G. Sato and Craig Brazell among them, have retired.

That 2008 team is the one the current Lions are trying to emulate. That squad went wire-to-wire in the PL, finishing every month of the season in first place. It was driven by a rising crop of 20-somethings, and Nakamura was right in the thick of things, with a PL-high 46 homers and 101 RBIs in a breakout performance that year.

He went on to hit 48 homers in two of his next three seasons and finished with at least 20 nine times from 2008-2017, with an injury-shortened 2013 campaign, when he played in just 36 games, the lone outlier. He became the 45th player to reach 1,000 career RBIs on Aug. 7, joining a group even more exclusive than NPB’s 2,000-hit club, which has 51 members.

Now 34, Nakamura is one of the veterans trying to both guide the new generation of Lion cubs and also keep up with them. He’s only played in 57 games this season, but his recent showing gave Seibu’s young stars a glimpse of the player who won six home run titles from 2008-2015. He might not be exactly the Okawari-kun of old, but he can still knock them over the fences, mostly the left-field fences, with the best of them.

The Lions already have one of the most fearsome lineups in Japan, and Nakamura turning back the clock would make them borderline unfair to face on most nights. It would also go a long way toward the Lions maintaining their recent monopoly on the eighth year of the past few decades, with the team also having won pennants in 1988, 1998 and 2008.

They’re in good position to add a new one to the mix, and a little old-school power might be what helps them beat everyone to the finish line.