Pennant panic

Every culture expects or teaches us to expect certain behaviors in high-pressure situations. In Japan, one gets used to a look of stone-faced earnest-looking seriousness. Smiling, acting loose and trying to defuse tension, while making cool rational decisions is not always the norm.

In 2002, when Tuffy Rhodes told me he needed a week off to help his heel recover, and that his Kintetsu Buffaloes teammate Norihiro Nakamura was also badly in need of rest, I asked skipper Masataka Nashida about it. A year after winning the pennant, the Buffaloes were struggling.

“They may be right, and rest might do more for our team, but there’s no guarantee of that,” Nashida said. “But if I take them out of the starting lineup when they can play, it’s a signal to everyone that we’ve given up on the pennant race and I can’t do that.”

Nashida had an amazing understanding of the game’s costs, including the psychic costs of not following cultural norms.

On Wednesday, the Yakult Swallows took over first place in the Central League for the first time in forever and did so with two of their top players out of the starting lineup. On Wednesday, Swallows manager Shingo Takatsu sat two other regulars, inserting a pair of left-handed hitters against left-handed starter Kenta Ishida.

In the eighth inning, with a three-run lead, his late-inning game-closing pitching solution, neither setup man Noboru Shimizu nor closer Scott McGough made an appearance. Perhaps it would have been different with a one-run lead, something that might indicate the Swallows are being informed by analytics.

It also suggests Takatsu is less concerned with following the dictates of dogma than he is with resting his regulars while boosting the confidence of his reserves.

Since last year, Takatsu, Hanshin Tigers manager Akihiro Yano and Orix Buffaloes manager Satoshi Nakajima have all struck me with their willingness to trust less-established players in important situations.

This has always been the thing that set Tatsunori Hara apart from every other Yomiuri Giants manager in the past 50 years, although Hara — as befitting a Yomiuri manager — also identifies strongly with Yomiuri’s authoritarian brand — somewhat offsets the positive vibes of trust he tries to engender.

Following the dictates of convention in order to conform is a loser’s strategy. Convention can work, but just following it blindly can lead one into trouble. In 2003, I was stunned to find that the Hanshin Tigers, pursuing their first CL pennant in 18 years, were allowing players to opt-out of batting practice on hot summer days.

I watched at a series against the Swallows in Chiba as several of their regulars didn’t bat on a sweltering day. Team captain Shinjiro Hiyama didn’t and when asked about it, said he had, which is an extremely Japanese response: flouting convention but not admitting to flouting convention.

When I saw Swallows regulars sitting out and the top relievers not pitching this week in Yokohama, I assumed the Swallows had a series coming up against the Giants or Tigers and Takatsu was looking ahead to it being all-hands-on-deck for those games. But that isn’t the case at all.

Over the next week, the Swallows have two series against non-playoff teams: the Dragons, and the BayStars again. So watch their starting lineups, and if Takatsu keeps this up, we can expect to see first baseman Jose Osuna, cleanup hitter Munetaka Murakami and red-hot center fielder Yasutaka Shiomi, then we’ll know Takatsu’s a man with a plan and not just playing by the same rules as everyone else.

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