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石田洋之「神宮つばメ〜ル」 : 第32回 阿部健太の失われない10年
投稿日時: 2013-07-15 23:00:00

 世界的にはイラク戦争が勃発し、新型肺炎のSARSにおびえた。日本は雨が多く冷夏だったが、阪神が18年ぶりのリーグ優勝を飾り、大阪は熱かった。テレビでは地上デジタル放送がスタートし、テツ&トモの「なんでだろう」が流行語大賞に輝いた。巷ではSMAPの「世界にひとつだけの花」が流れていた。
(写真:「どんな役割であっても1軍で投げ続けることが一番」と阿部は語る)

 今から10年前、2003年の出来事である。その年、今はなき近鉄バファローズでキラ星のごとく輝きをみせた高卒ルーキーがいた。現東京ヤクルトの阿部健太だ。

 03年8月31日、阿部は大阪ドームでの日本ハム戦でプロ入り初先発し、7回途中1失点。148キロの速球を中心に相手打線を牛耳り、見事、勝利投手になった。さらに9月15日には、千葉ロッテを相手に5安打1失点の完投勝利。1年目は5試合に登板して2勝0敗、防御率2.16の好成績を収めた。当時、近鉄の若きエースだった岩隈久志と投球フォームと似ていたこともあり、“岩隈2世”とも呼ばれた。

「40歳まで現役で、先発として投げられたら最高です」
 その頃のインタビューにこう答えていた19歳の阿部がいた。プロ野球人生の滑り出しは上々。2年目、3年目と、どんな進化を遂げるのか周囲の期待は高まる一方だった。

 だが、2年目の04年は2試合に投げて0勝1敗、防御率13.50と伸び悩む。二段モーションが不正投球としてジャッジが厳格化され、プロ入り後にせっかく改良したフォームを再び変更せざるを得なくなった。その年のオフには近鉄球団がオリックスに吸収合併され、早くも2球団目のユニホームに袖を通すことになった。

 オリックスでも05年は3試合、06年は5試合と登板はわずか。ついに07年は1軍マウンドに上がれず、オフには阪神へトレードされた。阿部の名前が再び野球ファンに多く聞かれるようになったのは移籍1年目の08年だ。開幕から1軍でスタートし、リリーフで32試合に投げる。

 中継ぎとしての新境地を開いたかと思いきや、制球難もあり、09年は19試合の登板にとどまる。10年、11年は1軍での出番がなく、ついに“クビ”を告げられた。

 拾われるかたちで昨季、ヤクルトの一員に。3年ぶりに1軍のマウンドを経験し、「投げられることが楽しい」と野球少年のような表情をみせた10年目の右腕がそこにいた。

 気づけば10年、プロの世界に身をおきながら、その多くはいわゆる敗戦処理。白星とは無縁になっていた。11年目の今季も6月に1軍復帰してからはリードされている展開でマウンドに上がり、7月3日も0−3とプロ初先発の古野正人が3回でKOされた後の役割を託された。

「ビハインドとか関係なく自分のベストを尽くす」
 その一心で腕を振り、1回無失点。直後に味方打線が爆発し、試合をひっくり返す。10年ぶり、実に3580日ぶりの白星が転がり込んできた。日本球界では最も長いブランクのある勝利だった。

 十年一昔というが、未来のエースかと騒がれた右腕も、今やいつ出番があるとも限らないリリーバーである。久々の勝ち投手となった翌日には0−6の6回から2イニングを投げた。7日の中日戦では7回、3−3の同点に追いつかれ、なおも2死満塁の窮地で名前をコールされた。フルカウントから、うるさい荒木雅博をショートゴロに打ち取り、ヤクルトは競ったゲームをモノにした。

「どんな状況で投げるか分からないので、毎試合、準備はしています。肩ができるのは早いほうですが、“すぐつくれ”と言われて、すぐにマウンドに上がらないと行けないこともあります」

 ピッチングスタイルも変わった。速球とスライダー、チェンジアップを武器にした本格派から、今ではシュート、フォークなど、さまざまな球種を投げ、総合力でアウトを積み重ねていく。

「ヤクルトはつないでつないで、みんなの力で勝っていくチーム。粘って総合力で勝つという部分は今の僕に合っているのかもしれませんね」
 先発が不安定な現状の燕投手陣において、2番手、3番手の存在が勝敗の行方を左右することは少なくない。12日の広島戦では中澤雅人が大量援護を受けながら、4回途中で降板し、阿部がマウンドに送り込まれた。

 そのイニングこそピシャリと抑えたものの、5回には連打を浴びて慎重になってしまった。暴投で1点を失った上に、なおも四球で1死満塁。大ピンチを招いて降板を告げられた。試合はヤクルトが乱戦を制し、阿部が5回も抑えていれば、今度は10年ぶりではなく、約10日ぶりの白星が手に入っただけに、もったいない内容だった。

 阿部が最初に全国区となった松山商時代の夏の甲子園から、もう12年が経つ。2年生で背番号10を背負いながら主戦としてベスト4進出に貢献した。誰にも踏み荒らされていないマウンドで光っていた、あの日にかえりたいと思うことはないのか。

「それはないですね。スピードガンの表示は速かったかもしれませんけど、今のほうが質は良くなっていますよ。球の質やキレは良くなっている。積み重ねてきた経験も違いますから」
 昨季よりもストレートの手ごたえはいいと本人は明かす。1軍で投げることでバッターと対峙する勘も取り戻してきた。10年の月日で得たものが血となり、肉となって現在の阿部健太をかたちづくっている。

 その意味で、決して、この10年は彼にとって“失われた10年”ではなかった。「40歳まで現役」というプロ入り直後に掲げた目標を達成するには、これからの10年、いや1年1年、もっと言えば1試合1試合が重要である。

(次回は8月5日に更新します)

(石田洋之)


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