By JORDAN IKEDA
Once upon a few years ago, a local kid from the greater Los Angeles area went to Long Beach State, played extremely well, was drafted as the third overall pick in the MLB draft, won Rookie of the Year honors while leading his team to the World Series, signed a multi-million dollar deal, and now lives happily ever after as one of the best corner infielders in the American League.
In a nutshell, that’s the story of Evan Longoria, the now franchise cornerstone third baseman for the Tampa Bay Rays.
And while that story is certainly an amazing one, today, a sequel is in the works. This one, influenced by the Japanese way.
Jeff Yamaguchi, a Shin-Nisei and local kid from the Lakewood/Long Beach area, is having himself an otherworldly year. Playing for Lakewood High School, Yamaguchi has led the Lancers to a 20-3 record and first place in the Moore League.
“Jeff is our best player,” Lakewood coaching legend Spud O’Neil told the Rafu Shimpo after the Lancers defeated Long Beach Poly in their battle for first on Wednesday night at Blair Field. “He’s had a wonderful year so far. He’s one of the top players in Southern California.”
Top player indeed.
In a recent Los Angeles Times article, Lakewood was ranked as the second best team in all of Southern California. The Lancers sport a 2.33 team ERA and a .375 team batting average.
Outstanding amongst the outstanding, Yamaguchi leads the Lancers in hits, doubles, triples, RBI and is tied for second in runs. He also leads the team with a .772 slugging percentage, is second in batting average at .468, plays all over the field from first to catcher to outfield and moonlights as the Lancers’ staff ace with a 7-0 record and an ERA that skyrocketed to 1.81 after he gave up three earned runs Wednesday.
His success is a product of hard work, plain and simple.
“Trying to not take many days off,” he said. “Even in the summer time, or the winter time, you can’t slack off because there’s a lot of people out there getting better. That’s what our coaches tell us a lot is that you’re either getting better or you’re getting worse. So we just try to get better everyday.”
He’s done just that according to O’Neal who has seen Yamaguchi grow over the past
three years, picking up subtle nuances of the game as well as making huge number changes from cutting his ERA in half and winning more than twice as many games, to his noticeable increase in power and batting average. He’s also grown into a leadership role.
“Just try to be there for everyone,” Yamaguchi said. “New guys may not know how everything goes. You don’t get on them necessarily, but try to lead them through it. I try to lead by example. The vocal stuff will come, but I feel like if I just perform, than everyone else will just follow the lead.”
Performance is key. Ask any ball player and they’ll tell you that it’s easy to follow the guy who works hard and is successful. Yamaguchi is both, and his leadership, though quiet in terms of vocal direction, absolutely roars when he takes the field.
“Jeff is a great teammate and is someone we all look up to and want at the plate when the game is on the line,” co-captain Anthony Razo told the Press Telegram in a recent interview. “He brings so much to our team and no one works harder than Jeff. He is definitely our leader.”
Called “Yama” by his fans and teammates, the 18-year-old found his love of baseball when he was five and just learning to hit off a tee. Yamaguchi’s father, Max Yamaguchi, played for Waseda University’s club team back in the day and helped encourage and grow that love.
“Baseball is the same game, but the way it’s played from here and Japan is so different,” Max Yamaguchi said. “I am trying to teach [Jeff] how to become a little bit more disciplined and dedicated. I keep telling him if he practices, even just a little bit more than he is practicing so much better than the other American boys. Hopefully, he’ll adopt the Japanese philosophy in a good way. Hopefully, he’ll take advantage of me being a Japanese dad.”
“It’s a different kind of baseball in Japan,” said Yamaguchi whose favorite player is Ichiro Suzuki. “My dad always tells me that they work harder and stuff like that. It’s kind of hard to prove that, even though I grew up here and everything, I’m just as good as anyone else.”
Like his leadership, his play has done all the talking.
While Yama’s pitching has been exceptional this year and will most likely determine how far the Lancers can go in the postseason, it is his hitting and glove work that will carry him to the next level. Yamaguchi has signed on to play for Long Beach State next season.
“We got contacts from schools from all over,” said Jeff’s father, “But one thing he knew was that he would not leave Southern California. He would love to stay close to home.”
The scouting report on the 6-1, 180-pound senior has him playing second at the higher levels as well as batting second in the lineup due to his knack for making aggressive contact as well as necessary adjustments, and hitting the ball where it’s pitched.
“People say there are six tools in baseball: hitting, hitting with power, throwing, fielding, running, and smart play,” the elder Yamaguchi said. “Jeff is excellent in four, and in throwing and running he is above average in pro-scouts eyes. I think he will be a good infielder and if he stays in his size he’ll pretty much play second base. If he grows a little bit more and bigger, third-base will be good for him.”
Third base, just like a certain Tampa Bay Ray who played second at the lower levels as well.
Of course, joining Long Beach State, one of the premiere baseball schools on the westcoast, one that has been consistently ranked in the national top 25 making 17 of the last 20 NCAA tournaments and one that has harvested MLB talent in the forms of Longoria, Jared Weaver, Troy Tulowiztki, Bobby Crosby and Jason Giambi, Yamaguchi will face stiff competition as a 49er next year.
The Dirtbags (LBS baseball’s nickname) already feature sophomore Kirk Singer who has come on like gangbusters since an injury opened up playing time for him. He’s naturally a shortstop, but junior Devin Lohman is the incumbent and a good player in his own right, so Singer has been entrenching himself at second base and in the two hole while murdering the ball to the tune of a .435 average.
But, Yama will focus on next year’s team, next year. In the here and now, his sole focus is on the Lancers.
“We’ve had a good run this year,” he said. “We just can’t slack off. We had some tough games where we were down and came back and won, that really showed us that we could do it. We kind of just went with it.
“The perfect ending would be winning league, then going through the playoffs to the championship. But I try not to think that way. I try to take it game by game.”
After all, that is the Japanese way. Rookie of the Year and a multi-million dollar contract will just have to wait.