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Sunday, Oct. 14, 2012

BASEBALL BULLET-IN

Kakunaka's fortunes change in a hurry


We are establishing a new "prize" here. It is the Baseball Bullet-In "Out of the Blue Award" with recognition given to the player in Japanese pro baseball who has the best season among those virtually unheard of and who came from seemingly nowhere to become a star.

The winner of the first annual "Out of the Blue" is outfielder Katsuya Kakunaka of the Chiba Lotte Marines.

Whoever would have thought a player in his sixth professional season, and who batted .266 with no home runs and10 RBIs in just 51 games in 2011, would go on to win the 2012 Pacific League batting title?

That's what Kakunaka has done, finishing the year with a .312 average to edge Saitama Seibu Lions shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima (.311) and take the crown.

Yes, there were some shenanigans during the Oct. 6 Lions-Marines game at Seibu Dome where Kakunaka sat out, and Nakajima was walked twice by Lotte pitcher Takahiro Fujioka. This was explained in Jason Coskrey's excellent "Sports Scope" column in The Japan Times of Oct. 9, and we'll get to that lack-of-class act by the Marines in a moment.

Nakajima, expected to leave Japan for the major leagues in 2013, appeared ready to go out with the title under his belt. He led the league during a good part of the year, and as late as Sept. 26 had a five-percentage point lead with a .318 average to Kakunaka's .313. Nakajima slumped toward the end though, and Kakunaka got hot.

To point out just how unknown was Kakunaka even back in May during the annual interleague play segment of the schedule, Yomiuri Giants pitcher D.J. Houlton was asked how he would prepare to throw against the Marines in an upcoming game. Houlton had pitched in the Pacific League the past four seasons with the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks and had faced Lotte on numerous occasions. He thought he was aware of all the key hitters on the Marines roster.

"I know their lineup," Houlton said. "They have some good hitters...(Tadahito) Iguchi, (Toshiaki) Imae, Saburo (Omura), (Shota) Ishimine, (Tomoya) Satozaki..."

What about Kakunaka, though?

Houlton scratched his head, saying, "Kakunaka? Kakunaka?" He could not place the 25-year-old left-handed batter who had just begun to heat up as the interleague season was approaching.

Obviously, Houlton had never heard of Kakunaka, but here he is, the 2012 PL batting champion, albeit with a low average for a title winner. Not a slugger, Kakunaka hit only three home runs but drove in 61 — the same as his uniform number.

For sure, the Ishikawa Prefecture native came out of the blue, but can he sustain this year's performance and prove next year he is no fluke?

That question will be answered in due time but, for now, congratulations on a great season.

Now, regarding what happened at Seibu Dome last week, this kind of thing has been going on in Japanese baseball since at least the 1960s.

In 1964-65, Hankyu Braves American slugger Daryl Spencer was competing for the Pacific League home run title with Nankai Hawks catcher Katsuya Nomura. Down the stretch, Spencer never saw a strike, and it got so bad, he began standing in the batter's box holding his bat upside down by the barrel, with the handle up. Of course, Nomura kept his lead and won the crown both years.

Other foreign players who were cheated — if we can use that word — out of a fair chance to win a title or break a Japanese baseball record include Randy Bass, Tuffy Rhodes and Alex Rhodes, in their pursuit of Sadaharu Oh's single-season home run record of 55. Bass fell one short in 1985, while Rhodes and Cabrera somehow were allowed to tie — but not break — Oh's mark in 2001 and 2002, respectively.

It is not necessarily a case of jingoism, either. Kakunaka and Nakajima are both Japanese, and a similar situation occurred in 1982 between Keiji Nagasaki of the Yokohama Taiyo Whales and Yasushi Tao of the Chunichi Dragons. On the season's final day with Taiyo playing Chunichi, Nagasaki led Tao by a point in the Central League batting race.

As Kakunaka did last week, Nagasaki sat on his hands in the dugout with an average of .3510101, while Tao, hitting .3501006, made a late-game pinch hitting appearance, needing a hit to overtake Nagasaki and capture the batting crown.

Had Tao gotten a hit, his average would have gone to .3514056, but he never saw a pitch anywhere near the plate. Of course, both Nagasaki and Tao should have played, batted four or five teams each and been pitched to fairly. The same goes for Kakunaka and Nakajima.

The losers in these types of situations are not only the players who are denied their fair chance to compete, but also the fans who paid to see the best players give their best effort at all times.

Part of the problem is Japan's system of making up rained-out games at the end of the season. With nothing on the line for the teams after the pennant races, playoff seeds and league standings have been decided, the focus shifts to the individual titles, and the funny business takes over.

Had a pennant or Climax Series appearance been dependent on that Oct. 6 game, you can bet Kakunaka would have played, and maybe Nakajima would not have been walked. This is obviously one area in which Japanese baseball lacks one of the most important elements of the game — sportsmanship.

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Contact Wayne Graczyk at: Wayne@JapanBall.com



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