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Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Washiya eyes quick climb to majors

Staff writer

Naoya Washiya had to wait a little longer than expected before seeing his name in the MLB Draft.

News photo
Big plans: Naoya Washiya, who played on Komadai Tomakomai's title team at Koshien in 2005, hopes to make it to the majors with the Washington Nationals in 2 1/2 years. KYODO PHOTO

He doesn't plan on having to wait too long before breaking into the big leagues.

The Hokkaido-born center fielder was drafted by the Washington Nationals in the 14th round of last month's MLB draft and has a plan to hone his skills in the minors and hopes to make his major league debut in 2 1/2 years or less.

"My goal is to play in the big leagues, so I'm ready," Washiya said in a telephone interview with The Japan Times. "I think my starting point is that I get to the minor leagues. Then I want to play like 20 years in the big leagues.

"I was expecting to get drafted in the 10th or 12th round, then I went in the 14th. But as I said, my goal is to play in the big leagues so I have to work harder in the minor leagues."

As high as the bar he's set for himself is, D.J. Simonette, his college coach at College of the Desert in Palm Desert, Calif., said Washiya has the talent to see his dream reach fruition.

"Just being more consistent at the plate, taking consistent swings and for him to understand truly what kind of player he is," Simonette said when asked about Washiya's keys to success. "He needs to put the ball on the ground, hit line drives on the ground and create havoc on the basepaths. He's got to be more aggressive on the bases."

Washiya is the second Japanese player selected in the major league amateur draft, following Mitsuru Sakamoto, who was taken by the Colorado Rockies in the 24th round of the 2002 draft.

Within days of being drafted, Washiya reported to the Nationals' rookie team which plays in Viera, Fla., in the Gulf Coast League.

Simonette has had a number of his COD players drafted, but said Washiya has just as many, if not more skills than those players possessed.

"I think with his tools, he'll be in the big leagues in 3 to 5 years," Simonette said. "He's got an incredible baseball package."

News photo
Honor student: Despite not getting into the college of his choice in Japan, Naoya Washiya graduated with honors from College of the Desert in Palm Desert, Calif. COURTESY OF THE DESERT SUN

The Japanese center fielder got into baseball after being around his grandfather, who also had a fondness for the game.

"My grandpa used to play in the amateur leagues so I was always with my grandpa," Washiya said. "And my friends were playing baseball in elementary school and I was kind of jealous."

He spent his high school years at Komadai Tomakomai in Hokkaido, where he won the 2005 Japanese National High School Baseball Championship and was a teammate of Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles pitcher Masahiro Tanaka, with whom he still has contact.

"We met in San Diego after the WBC game," Washiya said of Tanaka. "And he e-mailed me when I got drafted."

The annual spring and summer tournaments at Koshien Stadium are a major event in Japan, but many in the U.S. have only heard little, if anything, about them. Simonette was among those in the dark until coming into contact with Washiya.

"I had no clue," Simonette said. "Zero clue. But Naoya sent me a video from the high school championships and I kind of got an idea from seeing how many people were at the game. I really didn't get a sense until after talking to Naoya about how big high school baseball was.

"I'm getting more of a sense now with all the media and the the excitement of him getting drafted."

After high school, Washiya had initially planned to attend college in Japan but was forced to look elsewhere after not getting into the school of his choice.

Despite the educational setback in his home country, Washiya excelled academically at COD, where he earned his A.A. degree with honors and was selected to be one of three student speakers at his graduation. He proved to be a genuine "student-athlete."

"I tried to go to a college in Japan but I couldn't get in," Washiya said. "Then I read a book about colleges in the U.S. and found COD. I sent videos to about five (colleges) and the (COD) coaches e-mailed me."

After watching that video, Simonette felt Washiya had the potential to be a great player.

"When I looked at the video, honestly I saw a young Ichiro," Simonette said "That's honestly what I saw. The only thing I didn't know from the video was how well he ran."

After seeing Washiya's speed in person, Simonette was convinced he had a special talent on his hands.

He just had to bridge a cultural divide in order to harness it.

In Japanese baseball, mistakes are usually met harshly and most decisions, especially on the high school level, are group decisions. So despite being the Roadrunners' "green light guy," Washiya was initially hesitant in COD's aggressive American style of play.

"In Japan we can't make a mistake in games or in practices," Washiya said. "I can be more aggressive in the U.S. I don't have to be afraid of making mistakes."

Once he was over that hump, Washiya really began to blossom into a special ballplayer.

"The one thing I think he learned faster than anything else is that we don't care if we fail," Simonette said. "We're going to go hard and if we fail, that's OK. In Japan it was more about percentages and situations when they ran.

"It took him about a year. He would get me harping on him, 'Don't be afraid of being thrown out, just go.' His first year he would wait for me to give him a sign before he would go. He did a better job of being more aggressive in his second year."

The opinions of various major league scouts also helped push Washiya in the right direction.

"He went through the draft process last year," Simonette said. "The clubs he was working out for would say the same thing, 'Be aggressive.' Once the scouts started letting him know they needed to see him run, he said, 'OK, if that's what you guys want. ' "

Having spent most of his life in Japan, Washiya had to make adjustments on and off the field to reach the level he's at now.

"I think the language was tough, and the culture also," Washiya said. "I lived in Japan for 18 years so I don't know if I'll ever get used to it."

His coach had to adjust to him as well, but thought his transition was easier than Washiya's.

"The most difficult part for him was the language," Simonette said. "But he spoke enough English that he and I could actually have a conversation.

"For me there really wasn't a difficult part. It was just making sure he had all the necessary tools to be successful. For example, after I would speak to the group, I would go to him and make sure he understood everything."

"It was tough at first," Washiya conceded. "I didn't understand what people were saying."

Washiya has worked through that, however, and is hoping to achieve his dream of a long, fruitful career in the major leagues.

"Speed and defense," Washiya answered when asked what he wants to improve on in the minor leagues. "And batting to hit line drives. I just have to adapt to the minor leagues.

"I just want to get to the big leagues in 2 1/2 years and this is my starting point."

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