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Veteran, versatile Fighters endure slew of injuries

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Injuries are what professional teams inevitably have to deal with, perhaps an even more daunting task than facing opposing teams.

That said, the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters’ physical woes are not particularly conspicuous.

Yet when you look at the number of the wounded and to whom it is happening, you come to think this is actually extraordinary.

The reigning Pacific League champion has had a series of injuries since Opening Day, and Masataka Nashida, who was introduced as the club’s new skipper in 2008 to replace Trey Hillman, has had to literally “manage” to fill the spots for those missing core players.

The difficulties began in January, when the team’s new acquisition and former Cleveland Indian Kazuhito Tadano, who was selected in last fall’s draft and was expected to quickly chip in for the starting rotation from the beginning of the season, broke his left wrist after falling down while jogging.

Then in early April, shortstop Makoto Kaneko, the team’s players union leader and one of the most reliable fielders at the position, had to be sent to the farm team because he hurt his groin in his left leg. Then third baseman Eiichi Koyano injured his side while swinging a bat and was taken off the active roster for nearly a month.

Disasters kept happening. Starting pitcher Masaru Takeda and closer Micheal Nakamura were sidelined afterward. Takeda, a nine-game winner in 2007, fractured his left thumb as Chiba Lotte Marines’ Benny Agbayani’s batted ball hit it during batting practice April 29, and Nakamura hurt his right hamstring on May 15.

Although Nakamura is expected to miss a few weeks, Takeda isn’t likely to return during the first half of the season.

The latest Fighter to get injured is center fielder Hichori Morimoto. The leadoff man was hit by Giants reliever Kentaro Nishimura’s pitch on Sunday and will miss about a month due to his broken left pinkie.

Injuries are a part of the game, we know that. But no other Japanese team has had as many integral players injured this season as the Hammies.

“Filling in for him with one guy is too difficult. We have to make it up with the whole team,” Nashida said before Monday’s game against the Yomiuri Giants.

“Considering his fielding ability and the percentage he gets on base (.365, second on the team behind second baseman Kensuke Tanaka through Monday), one guy can’t do it all by himself. It’s not that easy.”

One of the strengths of this club, however, is its depth on the bench, backed up by its well-established farm system, which is located in Kamagaya, Chiba Prefecture. And it’s fair to say it has enabled the northern club to sit in second place in the PL with a 29-24-1 record, four games behind the Saitama Seibu Lions.

“We’re staying strong,” right-handed starter Brian Sweeney said. “I feel we have a deep bench and a deep minor league system where we can call on a guy and they’re going to come in and do well. That’s good to have over the long haul because we’re going to need it down the stretch.

“Plus, we play together as a team and we pick each other up.”

As Nashida stated, there isn’t a player who can play at the same level as Morimoto, who leads the team with 59 hits, nine stolen bases and a .379 average with runners in scoring position.

“I don’t know who to put in at the Nos. 1 and 2 spots in the lineup,” Nashida said before Monday’s game against the Giants, the day after Morimoto’s injury. The skipper eventually decided to have rookie Kazuya Murata take Morimoto’s spot in the field and in the batting lineup. Takayuki Takaguchi batted second.

But even under painful circumstances, the Fighters aren’t necessarily mourning, and it may make this club unique compared to the previous two ballclubs that captured PL championship flags.

“We lost, but we showed some tenacity and it will lead to the next game,” Tanaka said bluntly after Monday’s 4-3 loss. “(Morimoto’s leave) is not something new that we haven’t experienced. We’re just going to do our job with the staff we have.”

Veteran leader and right fielder Atsunori Inaba, who has hurt his left hamstring recently, sided with Tanaka, admitting his team has never experienced such a string of injuries.

“Yes, this kind of situation is happening to us for the first time,” he said. “But we can’t help by saying that and we’re just going to go out there teaming up.”

During batting practice before Monday’s game, there was a scene like this on the field: Tomochika Tsuboi, who was just promoted to the top team instead of Morimoto that day, was talking with Inaba on the field, cracking jokes.

“Did you watch (my batting)? I got some power, don’t I?” Tsuboi asked.

“Yeah, you’re great. You can do it,” Inaba responded, jokingly.

There was no sense of tragedy. This team is prepared for any situation in the game and knows how to win ballgames.

In the last few seasons, the Fighters were able to grab the champion flags despite their poor offensive numbers, and it is certainly because of the strong pitching staff and steady defense.

One key point is that many of the Fighters can play multiple positions, and it certainly helps when someone goes down.

Nippon Ham edged the Chunichi Dragons 1-0 last Friday, for example. The Fighters came up with just three hits, but protected the nest-egg run (on Inaba’s second-inning solo homer) with some stellar defensive plays until the end.

Sweeney excitedly said his team’s defense is the best in the world, and it’s so tough against pressure in close contests.

“A nail-biter through nine innings, we win 2-0,” is what Sweeney described as “typical Fighters ball.”

“We definitely rely on pitching on defense and timely hitting on offense. We just got banged up against Chunichi. We won 11-1 (last Saturday; Sweeney got the win). This is great, that’s comfortable for pitchers to go out there like that.

“But we’ve played a lot of one-, two-run games. We’re comfortable in that scenario. We’re comfortable with that kind of pressure.”