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Friday, Feb. 4, 2011

NPB NOTEBOOK

Old faces appear in new places as camp opens


Staff writer

Hichori Morimoto has dressed as an alien, a muay thai fighter and a popular cartoon character over the past few years.

News photo
Welcome back: Kazuo Matsui returns to Nippon Pro Baseball with the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles this season after seven years in the major leagues. KYODO PHOTO

Still, his most odd look might have come on Tuesday, when he hit the practice field in a Yokohama BayStars uniform after some memorable years with the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters as Tsuyoshi Shinjo's successor as team showman.

Morimoto is but one of several old faces in new places as a slew of NPB veterans begin training camp with new teams. Like Morimoto, who in true Morimoto fashion celebrated his move with neon yellow shoes and wristbands, the new additions are adapting to unfamiliar surroundings and teammates as they prepare for the 2011 campaign.

Seiichi Uchikawa, the prize of the hot stove season, is fitting in with the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks after leaving the lowly BayStars over the winter. He's not the only new kid on the block with the Hawks, as long-tenured veterans Toru Hosokawa and Alex Cabrera also take their first cuts with the Kyushu franchise.

All the above played in Japan last season, but others are returning after years abroad.

Kazuo Matsui and Akinori Iwamura are returning from the major leagues to join the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles. Rakuten fans will be hoping they can replicate the success of former major leaguers Tadahito Iguchi in 2009 and Kenji Johjima in 2010 and put up good numbers in their first season back.

Others find themselves in new spots as well, as teams shuffled their cards over the winter in order to position themselves for a run at the pennant and, ultimately, the Japan Series.

Only time will tell which teams and veterans made the right decisions.

First impressions: If history is any indicator, Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles fans have a good reason to be excited about the arrival of new manager Senichi Hoshino.

Hoshino has shown a great acumen for turning franchises around in his first season at his first two stops, and Eagles fans are hoping the trend continues.

Hoshino took his first managerial job in 1987 and piloted the Chunichi Dragons to a 68-51-11 mark, a 14-win improvement over the team's previous year. He took over the Hanshin Tigers in 2002 and, despite finishing below .500 at 66-70-4, led the Tigers to a 9 1/2-game turnaround and their most wins in nearly a decade.

If history holds serve this year, get your bets in early for 2012. Hoshino led both the Dragons and Tigers to the Japan Series (though he lost both) in his second year in charge.

People's choice: Contrary to what the media coverage surrounding Yuki Saito may lead one to believe, Saito's college teammate, Tatsuya Oishi, was the most sought-after player in the 2010 draft.

A recent Nikkan Sports poll (which drew 1,722 responses) revealed at least a small sampling of fans haven't forgotten about Oishi, with 41.1 percent of respondents saying they believe Oishi will be the season's top rookie. Saito was second at 22.5.

Switching gears: Chiba Lotte Marines speedster Takashi Ogino isn't just working his way back from the knee injury that limited him to 46 games last season, he's also learning a new position.

Ogino roamed the Lotte outfield as a rookie in 2010, but this year the team is hoping to have him make the transition to shortstop and replace the departed Tsuyoshi Nishioka. The move allows the Marines to open up a place in the outfield for another second-year player, Ikuhiro Kiyota, who blossomed during the postseason and may have played his way into a starting job.

Ogino was batting .326 out of the two-hole and leading Japanese baseball with 25 stolen bases when he went down with his injury. A healthy Ogino is too valuable to keep on the bench, so the Marines will be hoping his transition to the infield is a smooth one.



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