Umeno with the Hanshin Tigers
|Hanshin Tigers – No. 44|
June 17, 1991 |
|2014, for the Hanshin Tigers|
Ryutaro Umeno (梅野 隆太郎? Umeno Ryūtarō, born June 17, 1991 in Fukuoka, Japan) is a Nippon Professional Baseball catcher for the Hanshin Tigers in Japan's Central League. Since joining the Tigers, he was given the nickname "Ume-chan".
Early Baseball Career
Born in Nakagawa-cho, Fukuoka Prefecture, Ryutaro started playing baseball when he was in 2nd grade, mainly due to the influence of his father who at that time was a coach of the town's little league team. He originally played as an outfielder, but changed his position to catcher when he was in 4th grade.
In middle school, his team, the Nakagawa Sharks, regularly participated in the Japan Baseball League. From 2005–2006, he led his team to 2 consecutive overall championships as the main catcher and 4th batter.
Under a baseball scholarship program, he entered Fukuoka Koudai Joto High School where he played as an outfielder until the summer of his sophomore year. He was elected as team captain and returned to the catcher position during the autumn of the same year. He was a year ahead Masahiro Nakatani, another Hanshin player drafted straight from high school, who also converted from an outfielder to a catcher. He hit a total of 24 home runs in high school.
Ryutaro was supposed to be included in the 2009 amateur draft, but he thought he might not be able to handle the strain from professional matches yet, so he decided to attend Fukuoka University instead. His team regularly competed in the Kyushu University Baseball League, and for four consecutive seasons, made it to the finals. In all his league appearances, he hit a total of 28 home runs, and recorded a batting average of .300. In addition, he was selected as captain of Japan's team to the 2013 USA College Baseball Championships, where Japan won the series 3-2.
In November 2013, his team defeated Nippon Bunri Daigaku in the Kyushu University Baseball League championships. With this, their team represented the Kyushu region in the 44th Meiji Jingu Baseball Tournament. Unfortunately, his team was eliminated in the first round (November 16), despite him delivering three hits and a solo homer.
With his notable performance during the pre-season exhibition games and the lack of reliable catchers in the roster, Manager Wada decided to give the rookie a go at the plate. He debuted as a pinch hitter in the March 28 season opener with the Yomiuri Giants in Tokyo Dome, and remained as a catcher until the end of the game. Two days after in the same card, he scored his first hit, again as a pinch hitter in the 6th. This feat of having a Tiger rookie catcher score during the season's opening card was last achieved 45 years ago (1969) by Kōichi Tabuchi.
He first appeared as a starter in April 20 match with the Swallows, the first time in twelve years that a Hanshin rookie catcher did so, since Ryo Asai. A week later, he hit his first professional home run in the 9th during the match against the BayStars. He is the third rookie catcher to do so in Hanshin history, the first being Kōichi Tabuchi, followed by Shimada Munehiko in 1985, and the second rookie catcher to hit a home run as a pinch hitter, next to Hiroshi Yagi in 1987.
In the May 6th game with the Dragons, with both teams tied at the 12th, no outs and a runner at 1st, he was tasked once again to pinch hit. And to the astonishment of the crowd at Nagoya Dome, he hit a tie-breaking 2-run homerun, earning his team the victory. Even though his appointment that day was a last minute call, he didn't fail to deliver, recording his second homer for the season. He formed a battery with fellow rookie Suguru Iwazaki the next day, the first time since 2002, when both rookies Yuya Ando and Ryo Asai started an official game.
From June onwards, his starts gradually increased, mostly as a catcher for Randy Messenger. He again made Hanshin history in July 1 when he hit 2 consecutive home runs, the 3rd rookie to do so since Akinobu Okada in 1980, and just the 2nd catcher since Tabuchi in 1969. On July 5, he helped Iwazaki pitch 7 shutout innings against the BayStars, making their victory the first in 31 years since a Hanshin rookie battery won an official game. His July streak carried on, and he racked up 2 more homers on the July 8 match against the Carps and the Baystars on the 11th.
The strain from his continued appearances finally caught up with him however, making him lose considerable weight (10 kilos) and brought him to a slump towards the end of the season. And with the revival of veteran catchers Tsuruoka and Fujii, Umeno spent the remainder of the season mostly in the dugout. But even though he only made it to 92 games, he recorded 49 hits, 21 RBIs, and 7 home runs- at least twice that of any Hanshin catcher's home run record for the previous season. Legendary catcher Koichi Tabuchi himself praised Umeno, saying that the young rookie should give it his all to become worthy of wearing Tabuchi's former jersey number, 22. Defense-wise, he boasted a 99.5 fielding percentage and was the only catcher in both leagues to never be charged with a passed ball, a feat that was never accomplished in the past 35 years on NPB.
Though he didn't get any playing time during the off-season Climax Series, he was tasked to pinch hit in the 2nd leg of the Japan Series with the Fukuoka Hawks. In November, he also joined the Hanshin-Yomiuri team in a friendly practice game against USA, in preparation for the 2014 Suzuki All-Star Series.
He received a 9.6 million salary raise in November 21, bringing his annual salary to approximately 18 million for the 2015 season.
His right arm throw to 2nd base was clocked at 1.9 seconds, and has a fast swing speed. Hanshin import Randy Messenger, who teamed up with Umeno in most of his starts, praised the rookie's ability to catch even his most difficult pitches.
When Umeno was in 4th grade, his 34-year-old mother died of cancer. In her last two remaining months, her last request to her husband was "Please help Ryutaro become a professional baseball player". His father raised both him and his younger brother singlehandedly, while he carried on with his interior design business. When he made it to the 2013 draft, he thanked his mother during the TBS live conference on October 24. He offered the commemorative ball of his first professional hit on his mother's grave.
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