High Hopes that Nakatani Will Reach Benchmark
Signs the Righty is About to Break Out
The Hanshin Tigers are currently in second place in the Central League. The team went 16-10-1 on its annual long road trip to make room for the Summer Koshien (high school) tournament. That’s six games over .500 and it gives the team a solid chance at returning to the A Class after a one-year absence.
The team has lost its strong pillar Randy Messenger to injury, and the final month or so of games looks to be tough. One player has started to garner a lot of attention, though: 24 year-old outfielder Masahiro Nakatani.
He was taken in the third round of the 2010 draft out of Johtoh High School in Fukuoka, which makes this his seventh year as a pro. Despite the high hopes the team had for him, he was not able to get a lot of playing time. But last season, manager Tomoaki Kanemoto was purposeful in giving his young players a chance, and Nakatani played in a career high 64 games. His average was .266 and he hit 4 home runs, including the first of his career, but was unable to establish himself as a regular.
So far this season, he has played in 107 games. That number is more than he played in his first six seasons combined. Though his average is currently .242, he has hit 16 home runs – a huge increase over last year. He is showing signs of breaking out completely, like hitting home runs in three consecutive games against the Yakult Swallows starting August 22nd.
The First Since Shinjo?
The Tigers have played 115 games to date, meaning there are 28 games left on schedule. If Nakatani hits 4 more home runs during that span, he will reach the 20 home run mark on the season.
There is a real absence of a slugger on the team, particularly young Japanese power hitters. In fact, the last Japanese player under age 25 to hit 20 or more home runs in a season was Tsuyoshi Shinjo back in 1993. If Nakatani reaches the mark, he will be the first to do so in 24 seasons.
For the record, Shinjo was 21 years old when he hit 23 home runs in 1993. Going backwards from that time, Hiroshi Yagi (1990, age 25), Akinobu Okada (1981, 24), Masayuki Kakefu (1976, 21), Taira Fujita (1971, 24), and Koichi Tabuchi (1969, 23) – all of the other guys to accomplish the feat have made names for themselves in team history.
And so, Nakatani has emerged as a hopeful, new young Japanese slugger. Since he is 24 years old, Nakatani does have one more year to reach the goal, but for now, this season looks like a good opportunity for him to join the elite company of Hanshin legends.
However, even though there are high hopes for him, he does have areas that need work. For example, all of his 16 home runs this season have been pulled to left. If he wants to really up his game, he’ll need to learn how to hit the ball deep to the opposite field, too.
Also, since hitting three home runs in consecutive games against Yakult, he has gone hitless in 15 straight plate appearances. His outs in crucial situations and runners on base against the Yomiuri Giants really stood out. The key to his growth as a player lies in how well he is able to find consistency at the plate and keep his good stretches going for longer periods.
The team returns to Koshien for the first time in a long time on the 29th. The opponent is the same team against whom he got the three straight home runs: Yakult. First he needs to break his hitless streak, and then he needs to hit home run number 17. All eyes will be on the young cannon as the team resumes playing at Koshien.