Happy Birthday, Haraguchi!!! (March 3)
Catcher Fumihito Haraguchi (25) took fielding practice at first base on March 2 as Hanshin resumed team workouts at Koshien. Manager Tomoaki Kanemoto and the coaching staff made the decision based on the condition of Haraguchi’s right shoulder, which he hurt last season, and want to give his hitting a higher priority. Haraguchi was informed of the club’s decision onFebruary 28, the final day of camp in Ginoza. The void at first base has been filled, and second year manager Kanemoto’s infield is starting to take shape.
The rain has let up at Koshien. Haraguchi, who on March 1st just announced his marriage to a 24-year old nursery school teacher after 7 years of courtship, took to the field without his catcher’s gear. In his hand, a first baseman’s glove. One day after solidifying his social status, his status as a player has also been solidified. The change was clear to anyone with eyes to see.
Said Kanemoto, “We’re leaning towards giving him a lot of playing time at first base,” divulging his intentions to make that Haraguchi’s primary position moving forward. At camp in Ginoza, Haraguchi was sweating through workouts alongside Taichi Okazaki, Seishiro Sakamoto and Ryutaro Umeno. But not on this day. Infield strategy sessions and fielding practice both saw him at first base. And after batting practice, he went back to first for more fielding practice. Infield coach Kuji slapped grounders at him from second base to give him a chance to work on fielding short-hoppers.
Manager Kanemoto discussed the move with Haraguchi on the final day of camp, February 28. After practice that day, he called Haraguchi into a room in Ginoza Dome. Strategy and battery coach Akihiro Yano was also in on the meeting, as they informed the catcher that he would be converted to first base.
Coach Yano had this to say. “He has gotten his shoulder into better shape, and we know he wants to play catcher. But we also think that putting him mainly at first is the best thing for his future and his batting. There’s too high a possibility his shoulder will give out again if we keep him at catcher.”
Last season Haraguchi played 87 games at catcher, and towards season’s end, the condition of his right shoulder started to worsen. He worked hard to rehabilitate it this past offseason, but it is hard to shake the fear that it could get damaged again over the course of the long season. And since Hanshin has so many left-handed hitting fielders, having an extra righty in the lineup is important. He could become a core hitter for the team, which is why he was given so much time hitting 4th during camp.
He started last season on a development player contract but made it up to the top squad, hitting .299 with 11 home runs and 46 RBIs, helping stabilize the team’s hitting. Coach Yano commented, “First base isn’t easy either, but I hope he can eventually be a Golden Glove winner there.”
Haraguchi, who is about to take on this new challenge, said, “It looks like I’ll be playing first base a lot during games. I want to just do what I have to do to prepare myself for both (first and catcher).” Kanemoto has also told Haraguchi that he has not eliminated the possibility of using him at catcher as well. He has not lost his affinity for playing catcher, but will do what it takes to help the team win.
Before camp the only positions that had been determined were right field (Kosuke Fukudome) and center field (Yoshio Itoi). Now it looks like first base (Haraguchi), shortstop (Fumiya Hojoh) and left field (Shun Takayama) have been all but finalized. It looks like Eric Campbell will stay at third base. There’s still a month to go until Opening Day (March 31 vs. Hiroshima at Mazda Stadium). Kanemoto has put aside his personal feelings and is setting the team up for a run at the title.
Coach Kuji, on Haraguchi playing first: “He got some experience there last season, and so we’re not making a huge change here. He’ll mainly play first, but he has to learn some of the signs. He’s vocal and communicates well, so I think he’ll be just fine.”
* The battle for catcher comes down to Okazaki, Umeno, Sakamoto
Now that Haraguchi is set to play first, the battle for catcher comes down to three men. Kanemoto commented, “We’ll see who has good chemistry with the pitchers, who can get the ball to second base quickly, who handles pitches in the dirt better, who’s better at catching. Coach Yano will likely recommend one of them, and we’ll make a decision from there.” Second year catcher Sakamoto shown steady growth and Umeno made quick progress at the end of camp. Last year’s Opening Day catcher Okazaki is doing just fine as well. It’s a three-man race to become Hanshin’s pivotman.