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Golden Eagles to rely on strong pitching staff again in 2008

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Spring is the season of renewal and in baseball the excitement and hope heading into the new year permeates throughout every team during spring training.

It’s no different for the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, who exceeded expectations with a fourth-place finish last season after consecutive sixth-place campaigns.

The Eagles, who began play in 2005, have improved their win total in each of the past two seasons under skipper Katsuya Nomura and have an eye on keeping that trend going.

“We’re getting there,” first baseman Jose Fernandez said of Rakuten’s preparations for the season. “Little by little.”

The Eagles have been barnstorming this spring, playing each of their open-sen games on the road.

Coincidentally, Rakuten’s first six regular-season games are also on the road. The Eagles won’t play their home opener until Hokkaido Nippon Ham visits Kleenex Stadium on March 29.

“We’re in a different city every night,” Rick Short said. “It’s hard because you’re always the road team. You’re never the home team, so you can’t get that extra work in. You get your work done in the cage, but you don’t get those extra at-bats.”

One of the most reliable hitters in Japanese baseball, Short, who batted .330 last season, will join 2007 home run king Takeshi Yamasaki and Fernandez in Nomura’s lineup as the Eagles try to build upon last season’s positives.

Whether or not they can do that, however, likely depends on the performance of their pitching staff.

Masahiro Tanaka became a rookie sensation a year ago with an 11-7 record and a 3.82 ERA that led to him winning the Pacific League Rookie of the Year Award.

The young fireballer looks ready for another solid year on the mound after striking out nine over seven innings in his final preseason start, a 3-2 win over Seibu on Friday.

Tanaka has 18 strikeouts in 22 innings this spring.

“I think I was able to put out all my pitches,” Tanaka told the media after the game. “My response was good.”

He will be joined by fellow second-year hurler Satoshi Nagai, who was 7-7 with a 3.61 ERA as a rookie, and returning pitchers Hideki Asai and Yasuhiro Ichiba on a righty-dominated staff.

Rookie Kohei Hasebe was expected to add a left-handed presence on the mound before being sidelined with a knee injury.

“He was supposed to be our lefty,” Fernandez said of Hasebe. “But we have a good pitching staff. A good pitching staff.”

A lot of the attention will be on star pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma as he tries to recover from two injury-plagued seasons.

After a dazzling 15-2 record in 2004 with the Kintetsu Buffaloes, Iwakuma has made just 22 starts over the past two seasons. The righty has not completed a 100-inning season since 2005.

Iwakuma was sharp in his latest spring outing, fanning three over six scoreless innings in a 4-1 victory over the Chiba Lotte Marines on Thursday.

“He’s doing well,” catcher Motohiro Shima said of Iwakuma. “He has shown a good feeling during camp.”

Rakuten has a number of issues to address in the bullpen, with replacing departed closer Kazuo Fukumori chief among them. Fukumori signed with the Texas Rangers in the offseason.

Domingo Guzman is the early favorite to be the closer when the Eagles open the season against the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks on March 20. Guzman will have to adjust to the role after being used mostly as a starter (28-30 in 71 starts) during his time in Japan.

“You have to be ready every day,” Guzman said. “Before, in the U.S., I would pitch every other day. But in my years here I don’t get in the bullpen. It’s kind of hard but I’ll get used to it.”

The 72-year-old Nomura built a winner at Yakult and is laying the foundation for future success in Sendai.

But for now the Eagles are feeling good and ready to add another positive chapter to their brief history this season.

“It all depends on who stays healthy, who struggles and who doesn’t,” Fernandez said.