OSAKA — For the the first half of the season, most of the talk surrounding Chunichi Dragons pitcher Kenshin Kawakami involved a rumored move to a Major League Baseball club, injuries or a dismal showing in the Olympics.
After returning from Beijing, Kawakami has put the focus squarely back on his pitching.
Kawakami highlighted a solid second half with a scintillating performance against the Hanshin Tigers in Game 1 of the Central League Climax Series on Saturday which left the Dragons on the doorstep of an appearance in the second stage following the 2-0 win.
“He stepped up big for us” Dragons first baseman Tyrone Woods said. “You just can’t say enough about what kind of pitcher he is. He came out big and put up zeros for us. He pitched a great game for us in Game 1.”
Kawakami gave up no runs and allowed just four hits and struck out six on a night that could have been even better.
“I wasn’t in good shape,” Kawakami said. “I pitched as if once I gave up a hit, the game was over. I had a tough time with my stamina.
“Since I wasn’t in good shape, I worked around breaking balls. I used forkballs, too.”
It’s the same old story for Kawakami, who has been among the NPB’s most consistent pitchers over the past few years, recording at least 11 wins from 2003-07. Kawakami — who lost a few starts due to the Olympic Games — finished the 2008 season 9-5 with a 2.30 ERA.
Since the Olympics he’s pitched three scoreless innings of relief against the Tokyo Yakult Swallows, six shutout innings against the Yokohama BayStars and two scoreless frames in a relief appearance against the Tigers on Oct. 12 to end the season.
He showed veteran guile against the Tigers on Saturday, retiring the Tigers with the curve and forkball when his fastball wasn’t working up to his standards.
Pitching propelled the Dragons to the Japan Series title last season and that may be the case again this season.
Offense has been an issue for the Dragons this year. The Nagoya ballclub finished last in the CL in runs and batting average during the regular season.
Woods, who hit 35 home runs, and Norihiro Nakamura are the top power hitters and each drove in more than 100 runs. The Dragons feature a number of capable players behind them but their offensive production has struggled at times.
This means Kawakami and the pitching staff will likely have to play a large role and improve on their regular-season numbers if the Dragons are to duplicate their 2007 romp through the postseason.
Kawakami did his part on Saturday, but he shrugged off suggestions that he is the team’s ace, even though his performance showed that to be the case.
“I don’t think of myself as the ace on this team,” Kawakami said. “Just another pitcher out there doing the best I can to help us win.”