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Ham hurlers make Fighters tasty-looking prospect for Japan Series

by Jason Coskrey

The Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters’ offense has faced incredible struggles in the absence of star centerfielder Tsuyoshi Shinjo and Michihiro Ogasawara and rank toward the bottom in most of the Pacific League offensive categories.

News photoHokkaido Nippon Ham starter Yu Darvish, shown here in the file photo from the Sept. 19 game against the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, has had a team-best 15-5 record this season.
KYODO PHOTO

Which is why the performance they’re getting from their pitchers this year has been such a pleasant surprise.

On the shoulders of a strong pitching staff, the Fighters have overcome Shinjo’s retirement, Ogasawara’s defection to the Yomiuri Giants and an anemic offense to post the best record in baseball and remain a serious threat to become the first repeat Japan Series champion since Seibu won three straight titles from 1990-92.

“I think that a big key to our success as far as a staff is that we attack hitters,” starter Ryan Glynn said.

“We’ve done a good job of not allowing runners to get on base that don’t earn they’re way on. That’s been a big key to our success.”

Their success has even caught manager Trey Hillman, who put the pressure on the pitching staff to step up this year, a little by surprise.

“I told them and I told the whole organization,” Hillman said. “I’ve been studying numbers for 12 years. Studying how numbers match up to wins and losses. I said ‘pitchers, I’m putting the pressure on you. You guys have to step up.’ And they have. It speaks to the character of this team.”

This year, Yu Darvish, Glynn and Masaru Takeda have been the main components of one of the top staffs in Japanese baseball. Closer Micheal Nakamura is second in the Pacific League with 33 saves and rookie Mitsuo Yoshikawa, Shintaro Ejiri and Hisashi Takeda among others have all chipped in.

But it’s Darvish that has shouldered most of the load, combating soaring expectations with impressive performances that usually come against the opposition’s ace.

Darvish is 15-5 this season with three shutouts and leads Japanese baseball in strikeouts (201) and complete games (12). His 1.89 ERA is second only to Chiba Lotte’s Yoshihisa Naruse’s 1.81.

“He’s the most polished 21-year-old pitcher I’ve ever seen,” Glynn said. “He gets credit where credit is due. He’s a great pitcher.”

Glynn’s (9-7) 2.25 ERA is the third-lowest in Japanese baseball and Takeda (9-4) is fifth with a 2.50 mark through Sunday’s games.

While their pitching staff usually keeps runs to a minimum, the Fighters have not been able to provide them with much run support.

Nippon Ham ranks last in Japanese baseball in both runs (488) and home runs (73). Through Sunday, Yomiuri Giants trio Shinnosuke Abe, Yoshinobu Takahashi and Ogasawara have out-homered the Fighters 95-73.

“I think that the self-confidence has built up in each of us,” Glynn said. “We know what we can do. We go out there and do our job. I know it’s an old saying that we don’t have any control over what the hitters do, but we don’t. Our job is, if we score one run don’t give up any and if we score two don’t give up more than two.”

Glynn credits the team’s success this season to everybody knowing their role, playing together and doing their particular job well.

“We’re having kind of a pot luck dinner,” Glynn said. “Everybody has to bring what their supposed to bring to the table. Maybe I’m bringing the green beans but that’s my part to the whole dinner we’re going to serve,” Glynn said.

Although pitching has carried the day, Nippon Ham will need its batters in order win a second-straight Japan Series title. For that to happen the Fighters will need every man to play his part in their “dinner party.”

“That’s kind of the way we look at it,” Glynn said. “Hichori (Morimoto) brings the appetizer, Kensuke (Tanaka) gets them over, (Atsunori) Inaba and Seggy (Fernando Seguignol) bring the entree and we just go out there and try to keep the team in the game.”