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Nippon Ham offense rises to the occasion

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Entering the postseason, the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters weren’t favored to reach the Japan Series.

They barely made third place in the Pacific League, and they have been a weak-hitting club this season.

But once the Climax Series playoffs began, the Fighters offense and strong pitching staff helped them win first stage games against the Orix Buffaloes in a 2-0 sweep, and grab two wins to tie the ongoing second-stage series against the regular-season champion Seibu Lions, who had a one-game advantage due to the playoff format.

The Fighters offense has gone 46-for-177 with 24 RBIs and five homers in five postseason games. That adds up to a .260 average and 4.8 RBIs and one homer per contest.

Those figures aren’t spectacular. But if you know the Fighters well, those are fairly decent numbers, especially for coming up with runs. The team has produced more runs per game in the postseason than in the regular season.

In the 2008 regular season, Nippon Ham hit .255, scored 516 runs and amassed 516 RBIs and 82 homers, all of which were last in the six-team Pa League. But in the PLCS, it has produced 32 runs (6.4 per game), 24 RBIs (4.8) and five dingers (one).

And the Fighters, who won the league pennant in each of the last two years (won the ’06 Japan Series title) and have been 4-1 in this year’s PLCS, have scored runs effectively.

This postseason, they have outscored foes 32-21 and had more hits (46-38), partly thanks to their stellar pitching staff.

The Nippon Ham offense has also had six innings of more than two runs and three innings of more than four to seize momentum and give a psychological shock to opponents.

The Fighters batters have made it possible because once they have runners on base, they become more patient at the plate, waiting for the right pitch to hit.

What’s more, they think about how they can advance the runners to the next bag.

It’s amazing that they have been able to do so without their finest hitter, Atsunori Inaba, who hurt his left calf in the second game of the first stage against Orix and has taken only one at-bat since the injury.

The 36-year-old, who has played in the Japan Series five times, had a .301 average with 20 homers and 82 RBIs in ’08.

“It really hurts us,” said the Fighters’ laid-back manager, Masataka Nashida, before the second stage. “But we can manage it.”

In part, Nashida managed the absence of Inaba by drastically manipulating his batting lineup for Sunday’s Game 3.

He moved seven of the nine batters from their spot in the lineup from the previous game, including catcher Shinya Tsuruoka, who moved up to the No. 2 spot and third baseman Eiichi Koyano, who was the cleanup hitter.

Both Tsuruoka and Koyano produced at the dish in Nippon Ham’s 7-4 victory.

Tsuruoka had a single and scored a run on Terrmel Sledge’s three-run homer in the four-run third inning. In the eighth, he had a sac bunt to advance Hichori Morimoto into scoring position before Kensuke Tanaka blasted an RBI triple in the eighth.

Koyano, who also made a diving stop of a grounder in the fifth, went 2-for-4 and scored two runs.

“I just put (Tsuruoka) there because it was open in the puzzle,” Nashida joked after the game.

But it certainly gave a surprise to Tsuruoka. He said he was shocked when he saw the lineup on the wall before the game.

“It’s my first time to hit second in the lineup in my life,” said Tsuruoka. “I’ve never taken an at-bat in a first inning. So I tried to go in the bullpen and then go to the plate (to get my ordinary rhythm).”

For Koyano, his switch in the lineup wasn’t as astonishing. The 28-year-old infielder, who normally hits in the No. 6 spot, tried to do nothing different than usual.

“Although I hit in the cleanup spot, because there were long-ball batters behind me, I tried to step up to the plate thinking I was just a fourth batter,” Koyano said.

Behind Koyano, Sledge, Shinji Takahashi and Jason Botts, who can all smack longballs, were in the lineup.

Conveniently, the Fighters offense being on a roll actually works out better for injured Inaba because it gives him more time to heal his injury.

Inaba, meanwhile, is encouraged by his reliable teammates.

“A good flow is coming for us,” Inaba said. “Everyone is adjusting in what he has to do.

“We are on a good tide,” he continued. “So maybe I should stay missing from the game.”

Game 4 of the series is at Seibu Dome on Tuesday, when Nashida sends American Brian Sweeney to the mound, while the Hisanobu Watanabe-led Lions try to cool off the hot Fighters batters with veteran lefty Kazuhisa Ishii getting the start.