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Monday, Jan. 17, 2011

NPB NOTEBOOK

Fighters rookie Saito in spotlight at practice


Staff writer

The next generation of NPB stars has hit the field.

News photo
All eyes on me: Fighters rookie pitcher Yuki Saito plays catch during his first day of camp in Kamagaya, Chiba Prefecture, on Wednesday. KYODO PHOTO

Throughout Japan, the 2011 rookies have moved into their dorm rooms and hit the practice field in preparation for the upcoming season.

One of the more ceremonial parts of this annual rite is watching the top draft picks from each club inherit the room of his club's former or current biggest star.

Though it doesn't always work out.

The most celebrated incoming rookie, Hokkaido Nippon Ham's Yuki Saito, was thought to have already inherited the former dwelling of current Fighters ace Yu Darvish. That is, until Darvish revealed he was, in fact, still keeping some of his belongings there.

Interest in Saito's living quarters was such the Fighters arranged for the media to snap pictures of him in a decoy room.

The team is not revealing the location of his actual room.

That's a testament to Saito's popularity. Everyone wants a piece of him, and the media is busily chronicling his every move. He was unveiled to the masses at Sapporo Dome and the crowds followed him when the scene shifted to the city of Kamagaya in Chiba Prefecture, where the team's ni-gun complex is located.

It resulted in a curious scene as over 200 media members and 2,500 fans showed up on Wednesday, to watch "Yu-Chan," practice.

Remember me?: Chiba Lotte Marines outfielder Ikuhiro Kiyota flew under the radar last season before putting himself on the map with one of the best rookie performances in Japan Series history.

So all the attention and adoration following Saito around Kamagaya hasn't escaped his attention. Especially given Kiyota is a Kamagaya native and was honored by the city, with considerably less fanfare, just last year.

The second-year player is taking it all in stride, and told reporters that of all the signs proclaiming Saito's arrival, "none of them are at the station closest to my parents' house."

Their college careers intersected in 2007, at the 38th Meiji Jingu Baseball Tournament, where Kiyota's Toyo University met Saito and Waseda University in the final. Saito tossed six shutout innings, but the Waseda bullpen couldn't hold the lead as Toyo took home the title.

Asked if he was looking forward to facing Saito as a professional, Kiyota set his sights a little higher and quipped, "If it's a Nippon Ham pitcher, I'd like to challenge Darvish."

No minor deal: Former Chiba Lotte Marines reliever Hiroyuki Kobayashi is reportedly set to give up on the majors, for now, if he isn't offered a MLB deal by the end of the month. Which leaves the Hanshin Tigers in position to cash in.

Hanshin was the only NPB team to make a serious run at him over the winter and the reliever now looks set to join the Osaka club and take up residence as the setup man to closer Kyuji Fujikawa.

Which would be a nice reward for the Tigers, who simply dangled their hook until they got a bite.



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