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Sledge flexing muscles for Fighters in 2nd year

by Jason Coskrey

CHIBA — Terrmel Sledge is getting used to playing baseball in Japan.

Which could spell trouble for Pacific League pitchers this summer.

The Hokkaido Nippon Ham slugger is off to a fast start this season and is one of the driving forces behind one of the top offenses in Japanese baseball.

“Just getting used to Japan ball,” Sledge said of his fast start. “It’s a different game over here. Plus, I’ve been around the league a whole year so I’ve seen all the pitchers numerous times. So now it’s just a mind game. Playing chess.”

Through Wednesday, Sledge led the team with eight home runs and was second with 23 RBIs.

In 28 games, he’s already halfway to his 2008 home run total of 16, which came in 113 games, and looks good to surpass the 69 runs he drove in last season as well.

Sledge says the biggest adjustment during his first season was getting used to Japanese pitching.

“The pitchers here, they really don’t give in,” Sledge said. “You’ve gotta become a better offspeed hitter. We haven’t seen the forkball too much (in the United States) and 90 percent of the pitchers have a forkball here. And the ball goes up and down more rather than side to side over there on the other side of the world.

“These guys don’t throw as hard as the U.S. guys. But it looks a lot harder than it is because they throw with such good mechanics that the ball looks like it’s going 90 (145 kph) and they’re maybe throwing 85 (137 kph). That’s probably the biggest adjustment, they’re throwing darts out there.”

The Fighters star also said he has picked up a few pointers from other foreign players, who likely went through the same adjustment period as he did.

“I talk to all the other foreign guys on the other teams,” said Sledge, who has appeared in 291 games in the MLB, most recently playing 100 games for the San Diego Padres in 2007. “Probably Tuffy (Rhodes) has helped me out the most. Because they throw us differently. So I gotta look at the other foreign guys and how they’re being thrown.”

Everything seems to have paid off as he’s helped the Fighters to a 16-12 record and the highest batting average in Japanese baseball (.293). Nippon Ham’s offensive firepower is a welcome sign to fans used to seeing their team struggle at the plate.

“Can’t explain it,” Sledge said of the offense. “We’re relaxed, we’re having fun and maybe it seems like everyone knows their role.

“From (Tomochika) Tsuboi, being a veteran in this league, having won a batting title in this league, and he comes off the bench with the game-winning hits and things like that. You have Shinji (Takahashi), he does what he does, veteran guys, (Tomohiro) Nioka and (Atsunori) Inaba, and all the way from the top everyone just knows their roles.”

As for Sledge, one year with the team has helped him learn his role and he’s trying to do his part to bring another Japan Series title to Sapporo.

“Just getting used to it,” Sledge said. “We play this game to get better and I’m just trying to be the best that I can be.”

With the way they’re playing, the Fighters would figure to be one of the teams to beat in the title race — if they can keep it going at the plate.

“You don’t know,” Sledge said. “It’s early, you can’t tell. We could have this conversation again, hopefully we’re doing it the whole year, in September.

“It’s fun,” he continued. “I’m pretty sure everyone wakes up and can’t wait to get to the field. Winning cures all, losing doesn’t.”