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Talented Tigers excel in season’s first half

by Jason Coskrey

The Hanshin Tigers are so far ahead in the Central League standings the Japanese media has already given them a magic number.

The Kansai club has rolled through the first half of the season, mauling anything and everything in their path en route to Japanese baseball’s best record (51-24-1), highest winning percentage (.680) and a 12-game lead over the second-place Chunichi Dragons and Yomiuri Giants in the CL.

They’re getting the job done in almost every aspect of the game, leading the CL in both runs scored (316), despite being last in home runs (42), and team ERA (3.14).

Hanshin has shone on the road this season as well, going 24-16-1. This means teams looking to make up ground during the Tigers’ annual “shi no roodo” (road trip of death) during the National High School Tournament may be in for a rude awakening.

Entering Friday, the difference between first-place Seibu and last-place Chiba Lotte in the Pacific League was eight games. The third-place Fukuoka Softbank Hawks are just four games out of the top spot, meaning the race to the Climax Series is wide open and everyone still has a realistic shot at the regular-season pennant.

Hanshin’s advantage over last-place Yokohama is a staggering 27 1/2 games. Hanshin closer Kyuji Fujikawa has more saves (27) than the BayStars have wins (23).

In other words, the most compelling race in the CL might be for second place.

Tomoaki Kanemoto has led the charge at the plate, batting .338 with 15 homers and 64 RBIs this season.

Free-agent signee Takahiro Arai has been as good as advertised since his move from the Hiroshima Carp in the offseason. Batting .328 out of the three-hole, Arai is an All-Star in his first season with the Tigers and forms a fearsome duo with Kanemoto, whom he played with in Hiroshima.

As good as the Tiger offense has been, the Tiger pitchers have been almost as solid. Hanshin’s pitching staff has been the best in the league and has given up 16 fewer home runs (42) than any other CL team and is the only club yet to yield 50.

Leading the charge is veteran Tsuyoshi Shimoyanagi, who has won three of his last four decisions and is 8-2 with a 2.54 ERA in 15 starts.

Fellow starters Yuya Ando (7-4, 3.64) and Minoru Iwata (6-4, 2.30) also look like good bets to reach double-digits in wins.

In the bullpen, 26-year-old Ryo Watanabe has shone as the usual precursor to JFK (Jeff Williams, Fujikawa and Tomoyuki Kubota), Hanshin’s devastating trio of relievers.

Hit machine: The Hanshin Tigers were 7-1 in July entering Friday’s games largely because no one seems to be able to get them out. The Tigers have double-digit hits in 10 straight games, moving them into a tie for the second longest streak in Japanese baseball history.

The 1979 Hankyu Braves, 1992 Nippon Ham Fighters and 1998 Yokohama BayStars are the other teams with 10-game streaks.

The 1950 Shochiku Robins are first on the list with a 15-game streak.

All-Stars: Kanemoto was apparently disappointed to miss the chance to go against Hokkaido Nippon Ham ace Yu Darvish this season. On Monday, Kanemoto found out that he might get his chance as fans voted both he and Darvish into the NPB All-Star Game.

Darvish, who entered Friday 9-3 with a 1.93 ERA, was selected through fan votes for the first time and led all PL pitchers with 273,217 votes.

“I didn’t think I would be chosen in fan balloting, so I am happy,” Darvish told Kyodo News. “I want to pitch with all I’ve got in the series.”

Kanemoto leads a contingent of four players from the CL-leading Hanshin Tigers.

“I am honored to be chosen,” Kanemoto said. “I want to face Darvish, since I was not able to face him during interleague this year, although there are a lot of good pitchers in the Pacific League.”

Yakult’s Norichika Aoki led CL players with 343,453 votes, while Seibu outfielder Takehiko G.G. Sato led all players with 367,837. Sato also led all players with 476 votes from his peers as players’ votes were instituted for the first time.

“I guess I have an impact with my name,” Sato said downplaying the honor.

Staying home: A pair of Central League players have had their Olympic hopes dashed recently. Yakult closer Lim Chang Yong has been informed by the Swallows that the club will not release him to join the South Korean team in Beijing.

The team cited pitcher Daniel Rios’ doping-related one-year ban as the reason for opting to hold on to Lim, who has a 20 saves and a 2.03 ERA in 32 appearances this season. The club contends it cannot afford to lose another arm after losing Rios for the year.

Taiwan will also be missing a player, as the Hanshin Tigers have announced that injured outfielder Lin Wei-chu will also not participate. Lin, who is suffering from damaged ligaments in his knee, is batting .305 in 24 games this year.

“Lin probably wants to play in Beijing, but it will take some time before he can play a full schedule,” Hanshin president Nobuo Minami told Kyodo News. “He has a future and is one of our top players.”