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Sweeney stepping up his game for Fighters

by Jason Coskrey

If there’s a job to be done, chances are Brian Sweeney is your man.

Sweeney has almost done it all on the mound for the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters this season. He’s started, relieved and even has an emergency start to his credit.

To Sweeney, it doesn’t matter if he enters a game at the outset or during the later stages. As long as the Sapporo club leaves with a win, however the team chooses to use him is fine with the Yonkers, N.Y., native.

“I’m happy I can be versatile and give the team options,” Sweeney said. “Our main focus here is to win. Either way I gotta go in, pitch aggressively and throw strikes. That’s how I have to focus whether I come out of the ‘pen or I’m coming in as the starter.”

He was superb in his last start, throwing seven innings of one-run ball in a win over the Chunichi Dragons on May 24.

He gutted out a win a week earlier, shaking off a pair of early runs to keep the Fighters in the game long enough for Kensuke Tanaka to provide the difference against the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks.

Sweeney is 4-1 with a 3.23 ERA in 11 appearances for the Fighters this season.

“I’m happy it’s a better start than last year,” said Sweeney, who is in his second year in Japan. “I’m more acclimated to Japan. I understand the hitters here. A little luck and defense on my side is all right, too.”

His versatility has already bailed the Fighters out of one potentially damaging situation.

On April 29, Sweeney started on about an hour’s notice after scheduled starter Masaru Takeda suffered a fractured thumb in a freak batting practice accident.

Sweeney responded with six scoreless innings against the Chiba Lotte Marines in a game Nippon Ham went on to win 3-2.

“That definitely helped me,” Sweeney said. “You’ve gotta be ready on a moment’s notice. When a guy goes down, and I’ve said it before, we’re a family. We gotta take care of one another. Definitely coming out of the ‘pen helps me in that respect. You never know. When you get that phone call, you gotta be up and ready to go.”

With injuries running rampant through the Fighters’ roster, Sweeney has been one of the constants manager Masataka Nashida has been able to count on. He’s responded with solid contributions and is a big reason the Fighters sit second in the league with a 31-24-1 record.

“A lot’s expected of us — maybe not from the media — but a lot’s expected from us,” Sweeney said. “We want first place. For the past two years that’s where we’ve been. That’s where we’re expected to be again.

“It is a long haul, but we’re going to work our butts off to stay there.”

Swinging for the fences: Fukuoka Softbank Hawks pitcher Rick Guttormson became the first foreign pitcher to hit a home run in both leagues with his fourth-inning shot on Wednesday against the Yokohama BayStars.

Guttormson has three home runs in his Japanese baseball career, two of which came during his two seasons in the Central League with the Tokyo Yakult Swallows.

Former Nankai Hawks and Hanshin Tigers hurler Shinichi Yamauchi is the last player to achieve the feat, hitting home runs for the Hawks in 1972 and ’73 and for the Tigers in ’84.

Guttormson’s homer followed a shot by catcher Tetsuya Matoyama, marking the second time in Hawks history starting battery mates have homered in the same game. Former pitcher Takenori Emoto and catcher Katsuya Nomura each went deep on July 28, 1972.

Guttormson’s homer came against BayStars ace Daisuke Miura and Softbank starter Kenji Otonari added insult to injury the very next night with a home run off Yokohama starter Futoshi Kobayashi.

Learning curve: It was a bad day to be a rookie pitcher on Wednesday night. Highly touted freshman Yuki Karakawa of the Chiba Lotte Marines and Tohoku Rakuten Eagles young gun Kohei Hasebe were each taught hard lessons by two of the Central League’s “A Class” on the road in interleague action.

Karakawa went head-to-head with the CL’s best team at Koshien Stadium and lasted just three innings, giving up four runs on six hits, including a two-run homer to Tomoaki Kanemoto, to the first-place Hanshin Tigers.

Hasebe didn’t fare much better at Tokyo Dome as the Yomiuri Giants flexed their muscles, touching up the first-year hurler for five runs in four innings.

Home runs to Yoshitomo Tani and Shinnosuke Abe were among the eight hits Hasebe yielded.

In all, the starters had a rough night, combining to give up nine runs and 14 hits in seven innings.

A’s activate Chavez

OAKLAND , Calif. (AP) Eric Chavez returned to the Athletics a few days ahead of schedule.

The A’s activated their six-time Gold Glove third baseman from the 60-day disabled list Thursday and put him in the starting lineup as designated hitter for the finale of a three-game series with the Toronto Blue Jays.

As expected, Oakland placed designated hitter Frank Thomas on the 15-day disabled list with a strained right knee and quadriceps tendinitis.

Chavez was greeted warmly by the Oakland crowd but went hitless in his season debut, going 0-for-4 with one strikeout.

Chavez, who had offseason surgery on his back and both shoulders, was in Portland on a rehabilitation assignment with Triple-A Sacramento and thought he would travel with the River Cats to Colorado Springs. Chavez called the training staff before playing and hitting a home run Wednesday, then received word about 11:30 p.m. he would be coming to Oakland.

“I was just a little lethargic,” Chavez said after a 12-0 defeat to the Blue Jays. “I need to catch up on some sleep. I’ll feel better tomorrow, I’m assuming.”