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Tuesday, May 29, 2012

SPORTS SCOPE

Sakamoto thriving as No. 3 hitter


For all the fuss that's sometimes made about where a player bats in a team's lineup, when you get right down to it, managers want players who hit, wherever that happens to be.

Jason Coskrey

So even though Hayato Sakamoto has been a hugely valuable commodity as the leadoff man for the Yomiuri Giants for years, not many people are complaining about having him lower in the order. Because he's hitting, and hitting heals all.

For two seasons beginning in 2009, Sakamoto was among the most dangerous leadoff batters in Japan. He hit .306 with 18 home runs and 62 RBIs in 2009, his second full pro season, before having a huge year in 2010 with a .281 average, 31 home runs and 85 RBIs.

In 2011 things changed — the ball chief among them — and the zip went out of his bat, resulting in a tough campaign that saw him hit .262 with 16 home runs and 59 RBIs.

Sakamoto got off to another slow start this year, and with the rest of the Giants struggling as well, manager Tatsunori Hara shook things up by moving Sakamoto from first to third in the order among other minor changes.

So far Sakamoto has thrived in the role, and it's hardly a coincidence that as Sakamoto's play has improved so has that of the Giants as a whole.

Sakamoto was installed at his usual spot at the top of the order for the first 18 games of the season, battling through a slow start to hit .275 with seven doubles, two home runs and seven RBIs.

Hara shifted him to third on April 21 and the results were immediate as Sakamoto went 4-for-4 that night.

It hasn't been quite that easy since then, but in 26 games hitting out of the 3-hole, Sakamoto has a .320 average, five doubles, a triple, three home runs and 15 RBIs.

Sakamoto has always been among the Giants' most important players and the team's offensive production sometimes seems to ebb and flow depending on how hot or cold Sakamoto is at the time. So it's important that the Giants get him going again.

News photo
Heating up: Hayato Sakamoto is having a solid start at the plate for the Yomiuri Giants this season. KYODO

Last season was a tough one for the 23-year old. He looked frustrated and worn down at times during a trying campaign when it seemed nearly every ball he got his bat on resulted in a harmless popup.

His malaise began to creep into other parts of his game until Hara finally became perturbed enough to bench the young star.

This year has been different as Sakamoto has managed to get off to a solid start.

Entering Monday's contests, Sakamoto had a .301 average and was one of only two Central League players, teammate Shinnosuke Abe being the other, hitting above .300. He was also tied for seventh with five home runs and had driven in 22 runs, fourth-most in the league.

There is, of course, a long road ahead, but for the moment at least, the Giants seem to have gotten Sakamoto back on track. Which will be key to Yomiuri's chances at success this year, no matter where the shortstop is hitting in the lineup.



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