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Iwakuma’s resurgence has Eagles flying high

by Jason Coskrey

Tohoku Rakuten pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma is up to his old tricks in August and helping to shake up the race for the Pacific League Climax Series in the process.

Iwakuma threw a complete game on the road against the first-place Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters in a 6-3 win on Tuesday in Asahikawa, Hokkaido, helping the Eagles move into a tie for third place in the league.

The Eagles would fall back into fourth, a half-game behind the Seibu Lions, the next day after their second game of their series against the Fighters was rained out.

Iwakuma is 3-0 this month, with a pair of complete-game victories to his credit for the suddenly surging Eagles, who through Wednesday had won four straight.

“At this stage of the season, any complete game is appreciated because the bullpen pitchers tend to pitch too much,” Eagles manager Katsuya Nomura told the media after the game.

The Rakuten ace has been nearly unbeatable in August, having not lost a start during the month since losing to the Fighters on Aug. 30, 2005. In 11 starts since that setback, Iwakuma is 8-0 in August over the past three seasons.

Iwakuma’s resurgence over the past two months, stands in stark contrast to the way the season began for the reigning Sawamura Award winner.

After starring for Japan in the World Baseball Classic in the spring, Iwakuma struggled to a 6-4 mark with a 2.84 ERA over the first few months of the season.

He was taken off the active roster on June 18 after being diagnosed with inflammation in his right triceps. Iwakuma didn’t start again until July 12, and was shelled — giving up seven earned runs over five innings — in his return, an 8-0 loss to the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks.

Iwakuma has made five starts since that disastrous outing, and is 4-0 with three complete-game victories to improve his record to 10-5 overall.

“Getting double-digit wins is my responsibility,” Iwakuma told reporters after the game.

The improvement has done wonders for the team’s chances of reaching the Climax Series, which seemed far-fetched during an eight-game losing streak in July.

Rakuten is tied with the Fighters with a Pa League-best 10-5 record in August, while the struggling Lions are just 5-9-1.

The Eagles’ Iwakuma-led pitching staff has a league-low 3.11 ERA during that span, while Rakuten’s batters are hitting .288, second only to Nippon Ham’s .294 team average.

Iwakuma returns to prominence just in time to join fellow top-line hurler Masahiro Tanaka and form what might be the best 1-2 punch of starting pitchers in Japanese baseball.

Tanaka, who helped carry the team in Iwakuma’s absence, has been among Japanese baseball’s elite pitchers all season, compiling a 10-4 record with an 1.82 ERA in 18 starts.

The young fireballer is tied for the PL lead with three shutouts this season and has 122 strikeouts in 138 1/3 innings.

Offensively, veteran Takeshi Yamasaki is showing he still has some power left in his 40-year-old body, batting .269 with a team-high 27 homers, and Teppei Tsuchiya is batting a Japanese-baseball high .345 through Wednesday.

Rakuten returns home to Kleenex Stadium on Friday for a three-game set against the Orix Buffaloes, before facing off with the Lions at Seibu Dome beginning Aug. 25.