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Stellar in Sendai: Iwakuma bright spot for lowly Eagles

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While the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles have faded out of contention during the second half of the season, Hisashi Iwakuma has continued to establish himself as the top pitcher in Japanese baseball.

After being plagued by injuries the past few years, Iwakuma (18-3) is in vintage form and on the doorstep of his first career 20-win season.

“Just two more to go,” Eagles manager Katsuya Nomura told media on Tuesday. “I hope he does his best to reach 20. Twenty wins is a great honor for a pitcher. It’s different from the old days because you pitch fewer games in a season. If you win 15 games, you can be an ace.

“We’re on the bottom so we should have one good thing.”

Iwakuma pitched eight-innings of one-run ball and struck out seven in his latest start, a 3-1 victory over the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks on Tuesday night.

As Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters star Yu Darvish and others continue to shine, Iwakuma has quietly, consistently put up Sawamura Award-type numbers as one of the few bright spots in Sendai.

He’s done his part to give the Tohoku region fans something to cheer about as well, with a sparkling 7-1 record and 1.94 ERA in nine games at home in Kleenex Stadium.

The Eagles star has all but dominated Japanese baseball. He has said he wants to match his jersey number (21) in wins this season and looks well on the way to getting there.

“I was able to keep my poise even after putting runners on base,” Iwakuma told reporters after the game. “I was keeping in mind that my elbow wouldn’t get lower. I’m satisfied I was able to pitch low at the right occasions.”

Overall, Iwakuma’s 18 wins are the high mark in Japanese baseball and he is also on top of the NPB in ERA (1.91), innings pitched (174 2/3) and winning percentage (.857). Iwakuma hasn’t lost a decision since giving up four runs in a 7-2 loss to the Chiba Lotte Marines back on July 13.

The closest players to Iwakuma in either category are Yomiuri Giants pitcher Seth Greisinger with 14 wins, Darvish with a 1.93 ERA in 172 2/3 innings, and Satoshi Komatsu of the Orix Buffaloes, who has an .800 winning percentage.

In 24 starts Iwakuma has 135 strikeouts and has allowed just a pair of home runs. Both homers came during interleague play, May 23rd to Yokohama BayStars third baseman Shuichi Murata and May 31st Yoshikazu Kura of the Hiroshima Carp.

The Rakuten star, who has yet to give up a homer in Pacific League action this season, has never allowed fewer than 10 home runs during a year in which he makes at least 20 starts.

He’s done most of his damage against the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks, going 4-0 with a 0.50 ERA in five games. Iwakuma has also beaten the Marines four times this season.

Only Nippon Ham has a winning record against the hurler this season. The Fighters are 2-1 in three games against Iwakuma and have scored seven runs in 20 2/3 innings against him. Lotte is the only other team to beat him this year.

As the season winds down the Tokyo native is on pace to surpass his stellar 2004 season, during which he went a PL-best 15-2 with a 3.01 ERA (both career bests) and 123 strikeouts for the Kintetsu Buffaloes.

Japanese baseball last saw a 20-game winner in 2003 when Kazumi Saito of the Daiei Hawks and Hanshin Tigers ace Kei Igawa each reached the magic mark.

Saito was 20-3 with a 2.83 ERA and 160 strikeouts that season for the Daiei Hawks, helping lead manager Sadaharu Oh’s team past Igawa and the Hanshin Tigers in the Japan Series.

Igawa was 20-5 with a 2.80 ERA and 179 strikeouts and was named the Central League MVP after leading the Tigers to the pennant.

Saito and Igawa shared the Sawamura Award that season.

Before Igawa, the last CL pitcher to win 20 games was Yomiuri Giants star Koji Uehara in the 1999 season.

Yasunori Sato was the last PL pitcher to reach 20 victories before Saito, winning 21 games for the Hankyu Braves back in 1985.