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Atsunori Inaba

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Atsunori Inaba

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Atsunori Inaba is the right fielder for the Nippon Ham Fighters. He hit 50 homers in high school and drew attention in college due to his having a high-profile teammate, Katsunori Nomura, the son of Katsuya Nomura. Inaba was drafted in the third round of the 1994 NPB draft by the Yakult Swallows. He was playing fairly regularly for Yakult a year later, hitting a fine .307/.390/.465 in 67 games. He was 0 for 9 with three walks in Yakult's victorious 1995 Japan Series. In '96, Inaba batted .310/.391/.459 for the Swallows and then spent the winter with the West Oahu CaneFires, hitting .252 and slugging .371. He hit 11 doubles, two shy of co-Hawaii Winter League leaders Geoff Blum and Nate Rolison. He had a .267/.333/.483 line with the 1997 with 21 homers. He made his first Central League All-Star team and did much better in his second Japan Series, setting a record with 10 hits in a five-game series as Yakult won again; overall, he hit .500/.524/.650 as the top offensive performer for Yakult.

In '98, Inaba fell to .279/.327/.419 and missed time due to elbow cartilage surgery and arthroscopic shoulder surgery. The next season, he only managed a .265/.305/.409 line in a part-time role. In 2000, Atsunori batted .281/.304/.449 and assumed a larger role in Yakult's lineup.

Inaba put it all back together in 2001 as he hit .311/.379/.533 with 94 runs, 25 homers and 90 RBI. He led the Central League in times hit by pitch (16) and tied Akihiro Higashide and Takuya Kimura for the league lead with five triples. He made his only Best Nine, joining Hideki Matsui and Tomoaki Kanemoto in the outfield in the CL, and was named Yakult team MVP. In the 2001 Japan Series, he batted just .200/.292/.300 but won his third ring.

The 2002 season marked a drop-off for the inconsistent outfielder as he hit .266/.306/.388 with 10 homers and 39 RBI. In '03, he hit .273/.336/.454 in a reduced role. On July 1, he hit a cycle within the first five innings of the game. Playing everyday in 2004, he batted .265/.310/.449 with 18 homers.

A free agent after the year, Inaba sought to come to the US but no MLB teams were interested. He signed instead with the Nippon Ham Fighters and hit .271/.311/.466 with 28 doubles and 15 homers, but only walked 21 times. His career line was .282/.335/.458 after that season. He improved significantly in 2006 as he had a .307/.355/.522 line, homered a career-high 26 times and teamed with Michihiro Ogasawara and Fernando Seguignol as the top offensive threats on a Fighters team that won the Pacific League pennant for the first time in 25 years as they advanced to the 2006 Japan Series. He tied Seguignol for fifth in the Pacific League in homers and was in the top 10 in slugging, total bases and average. He homered twice and won MVP honors in the Series that year in giving Nippon Ham its first title.

Inaba was 5 for 10 with two walks, a HBP and a homer in the 2007 Asian Championship to help Japan win the title and clinch a spot in the 2008 Olympics.

Inaba signed a 270-million yen deal for 2008, an increase of 95 million yen.

In the 2008 Olympics, Inaba was Japan's right fielder and hit just .200/.256/.324 with 6 RBI in 9 games. His solo homer against Chris Begg was the only run in a 1-0 win over Team Canada. Japan went home without a Medal. In the opening round, Inaba's 6 RBI tied Nate Schierholtz, Giorvis Duvergel, Matthew Brown, Alexei Bell and Takahiro Arai for 4th, trailing Alfredo Despaigne, Dae-ho Lee and Michel Enriquez.

In the 2008 season, Inaba hit .301/.380/.513 with 20 HR and 82 RBI. He tied Jose Fernandez for 8th in average, was 8th in RBI, tied Tuffy Rhodes for the most intentional walks (9), was 6th in total walks (56), was 5th in OBP and was 6th in slugging. He won a Gold Glove and made the Best Nine in the PL outfield alongside Rick Short and Takumi Kuriyama.

Usually playing DH, Inaba batted .318/.348/.500 in the 2009 World Baseball Classic, hitting in the heart of the order for the champion Samurai Japan club. He failed to drive in a run in 22 AB. In the semifinal match against Team USA, he scored the tying run, drawing a walk from Roy Oswalt in the second and coming home on a Kenji Johjima fly to make it 1-1. He tied it again (2-2) in the 4th, singling off Oswalt and scoring on a Brian Roberts error. In the finale against South Korea, he set up one run with a double and the winning run with a sacrifice bunt. He tied Miguel Cabrera and Hiroyuki Nakajima for third in the Classic in doubles (4), trailing José López and Jorge Cantú.

Inaba hit .300/.391/.492 with 37 doubles, 17 home runs and 85 RBI in 2009. He was among the PL leaders in average (10th), doubles (tied for second with Takeya Nakamura behind Yoshio Itoi), runs (78, tied for 8th with Kuriyama), hits (150, 10th), RBI (5th, between Terrmel Sledge and G.G. Sato), triples (4, tied for 6th), total bases (246, 6th, between Teppei Tsuchiya and Yasuyuki Kataoka), intentional walks (11, 1st), sacrifice flies (6, tied for 3rd), times hit by pitch (14, 3rd behind Daisuke Kusano and Hiroki Kokubo), walks (65, 6th), slugging (10th) and OBP (2nd to Nakajima). He made his 5th All-Star team, won a Gold Glove and made the Best Nine (along with Itoi and Tsuchiya in the outfield). He finished second in voting for the 2009 Pacific League Most Valuable Player Award, well back of winner and teammate Yu Darvish. He hit .208/.296/.458 with two solo homers in the 2009 Japan Series, which Nippon Ham lost to the Yomiuri Giants. In the decisive game 6, the Gold Glove outfielder made an error in the second to score the insurance run in a 2-0 loss.

Inaba fell off a bit to .287/.351/.460 with 36 doubles, 16 homers and 79 RBI in 2010 but still made the All-Star team and finished among the league leaders in five categories: doubles (4th behind Tadahito Iguchi, Eiichi Koyano and Toshiaki Imae), triples (tied for 7th with Ryo Hijirisawa and Kensuke Tanaka at 4), RBI (10th), total bases (244, 10th) and times hit by pitch (12, tied for 3rd with Yuya Hasegawa). The veteran continued to decline in 2011, his stats not helped by a switch to a more pitcher-friendly ball in NPB. He hit .262/.311/.397 with 22 doubles, 12 home runs and 54 RBI. He was a PL All-Star again and finished among the PL leaders in slugging (10th) but in no other category. He still tied Itoi for second on the Fighters in RBI and tied Micah Hoffpauir for second on the club in homers, behind youngster Sho Nakata in both departments.

On April 28, 2012, Inaba got his 2,000th NPB hit to join the meikyukai. It was a run-scoring single off Kelvin Jimenez. Inaba was the 39th NPB player to 2,000 hits. In an interesting coincidence, former teammate Shinya Miyamoto reached 2,000 only 6 days later and took the same number of games as Inaba (1,976).

His hobby is listening to music.

Sources include: Japanbaseballdaily.com by Gary Garland, 2008 Olympics, World Baseball Classic site

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