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Lions enjoying winning under Watanabe

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During his playing days, Saitama Seibu Lions manager Hisanobu Watanabe was among the flashiest players in Japanese baseball.

So it’s not surprising one of the first things he has tried as Lions skipper is to create a more loose atmosphere for his players. What is surprising, however, is how quickly the first-place Lions have taken to the approach.

“You can’t really put a finger on it,” said Lions closer Alex Graman, who has six saves this season. “We’re just playing really well right now.”

After suffering through a horrible season by normal Seibu standards, the young Lions are roaring again in the early part of 2008.

Through Thursday, the team was tied with the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters for the Pacific League lead.

Scoring runs and having fun, Seibu has burst out of the gate this season on a mission to prove that last year was nothing more than a blip on the radar.

“We’re really coming together good,” current Pacific League home run leader Craig Brazell said. “We really are. We’re starting to really come together and play good baseball. We’re starting to really complement each other on the field.”

They’re complementing each other at the plate as well. Brazell has a league-high 10 home runs, G.G. Sato (.299, four home runs and 16 RBIs) and Hiroyuki Nakajima (.280, three homers and 16 RBIs) are off to fast starts. The team is getting contributions elsewhere in the lineup as well. In 26 games, Seibu has scored 118 runs and hit a league-leading 26 home runs.

The Lions have come down to earth a bit recently, going 2-4-1 over their last seven games. A slow start cost them in a 2-1 loss to the Chiba Lotte Marines on Wednesday when Lotte starter Shingo Ono shut them down.

“We should have scored more runs in the first inning,” Watanabe said after the game. “That way the game would have gone a different way.”

They have also struggled to muster much run support when their ace, Hideaki Wakui is on the mound. Wakui, who was on the losing end of Wednesday’s game, has a 1.81 ERA in six starts but just a 2-3 record to show for it.

“It was going good until the third inning,” Wakui said after allowing a two-run homer to Tasuku Hashimoto on Wednesday. “But against Hashimoto I pitched an easy ball.”

Despite that, the Lions are still riding high and hope to keep improving throughout the season.

“I think we’re starting to get where we have confidence in each other, where we’re not all out there thinking we have to win the game ourselves,” Brazell said. “We know the team as a whole is coming together. That’s not only a complement to the players but to the coaching staff.”

A lot of that confidence seems to have been bred by Watanabe, whose plan to make the game fun is in stark contrast to the rigidity of the franchise in the past.

“You can’t ask for anything more from a guy who is in his first year managing here,” Brazell said. “The way he brought this team together and united us, it’s just fun to play good baseball and win.

“For him to be in his first year and to have this going for him, knock on wood, we can really keep it going for him.”

Watanabe may be in his first year with the club, but the former Lions pitcher is no stranger to winning. Teamed with fellow Seibu hurler Kimiyasu Kudo, Watanabe was a six-time All-Star in 14 years with the team from 1984-97, an era in which Seibu won six Japan Series titles.

Now having made the move from the mound to the dugout, Watanabe has given the Lions a jolt early in the season.

“I think we have a real loose atmosphere,” Brazell said. “We have a lot of fun. We make fun of each other.

“I think that really contributes to the way we play on the field.

“It’s a very free, easygoing atmosphere here. It’s really showing by our record and the way we’re playing, the way we hit, field and our pitching. It’s very easy for a team to play when it’s like that.”

So far Watanabe’s Lions look nothing like the squad that went 66-76-2 and stumbled to a dismal fifth-place finish last season, though the players are trying to keep things in perspective.

“It’s definitely something where you don’t want to get too high,” Brazell said. “This is definitely a humbling game.”