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Atchison helping Tigers make late run at Central League playoffs

by Wayne Graczyk

During the Hanshin Tigers batting practice prior to a recent game at Tokyo Dome, I asked Tigers first baseman Craig Brazell if Scott was in the outfield getting loose with the other Hanshin pitchers.

“Scott who?” was Brazell’s reply.

“Ah, Scott Atchison, your American teammate. The team’s setup man reliever,” I answered.

“Oh, yeah. Atch. He’s out there. We call him ‘Atch,’ so I didn’t know who you were talking about,” Brazell said with a laugh.

Opposing Central League hitters know what Atchison is about, however. The 33-year-old, second-year-in-Japan right-hander is one of the top relievers in the country, and one of the busiest.

Through games of Thursday, workhorse Atch had made 67 appearances, compiling a record of 5-3 with a 1.68 ERA.

It may not be that noticeable, but he is one of the main reasons the Tigers, mired in fifth place most of this season, are now challenging for an A-Class finish and postseason play. He is fun to watch as he speeds up the pace of a slow game, exhibiting fine control as he retires opposing hitters.

Known for his hurried pitching tempo, Atchison wastes no time on the mound. He makes a delivery, gets the ball back from the catcher, checks the sign and serves up the next one, trying to maybe catch the hitter off-balance, but he’s not quick-pitching the batters.

“I find if I start my motion while the hitter is taking some practice swings, sometimes he’s not quite ready, and that can be an advantage for me. My job is to hold a lead and get the ball into Kyuji’s hands as quickly as I can,” he said, referring to closer Kyuji Fujikawa who would work the ninth inning of games after Atchison takes care of things in the eighth — or seventh and eighth.

As a setup man, Atchison does not often get the recognition of a starting pitcher or position player but occasionally gets a chance to bask in the spotlight. Following a recent home game at Koshien Stadium won by the Tigers 2-1, he and Fujikawa were invited to a rare “hero interview” appearance.

That night’s starter, Tsuyoshi Shimoyanagi, doesn’t like to do the hero thing, and the team’s runs that evening were scored on a wild pitch and a groundout to the pitcher, so there was no hitter suitable for the postgame acknowledgment.

Atchison does not mind the infrequent chances to appear on the podium and was grateful for that occasion, his first time this year, which allowed him to personally thank the Hanshin fans for their support. “They are the best,” he said.

Atchison said the Tigers team mood and attitude, as it fights for a spot in the Central League Climax Series, is different this year.

In 2008, Hanshin led the CL for most of the year until a late-season collapse saw it blow a big first-place lead and finish behind the archrival Yomiuri Giants.

In 2009, the Tigers are playing their best baseball later in the year, advancing from fifth place to pass the Hiroshima Carp and Tokyo Yakult Swallows in the fight for third place and qualification for the Climax Series.

A year ago, Hanshin was second but with the confidence-level arrow pointing down, and it melted in Stage 1 of the CLCS, losing to the third-place Chunichi Dragons.

This time, the Tigers are trying for third but with the arrow pointing upward.

Finishing in the A Class and playing in the 2009 Climax Series will not be easy, and Atchison knows that.

“We are a good team at home,” he pointed out, “but our remaining games are on the road, so we’ll be riding a lot on the shinkansen.”

A third-place team also has no home games in the CS and, if the Tigers do make it to the postseason, they would have to play the tough Dragons at Nagoya Dome in the first stage.

If they were to survive that, it would be on to Stage 2 and a best-of-six showdown at Tokyo Dome against the league champion Giants. That’s best-of-six because Yomiuri would have a one-game advantage before the start.

The good news for Hanshin is the Tigers have won five series in a row against Yomiuri, and Atchison is hoping he and his teammates will get to ride the bullet train and see Tokyo Dome again next month.

Qualifying for the playoffs comes first, however, and any time Hanshin is in a game in the seventh inning, look for “Scott who?” to take the mound and speed up the action.

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Finally this week, reader John Lichtle wants to know when will be the final game for Bobby Valentine as manager of the Chiba Lotte Marines. The last home game at Chiba Marine Stadium is a makeup set for Oct. 6, against the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles.

Barring any further postponements, the last game overall should be played on Oct. 7, against Tohoku Rakuten in Sendai.

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Contact Wayne Graczyk at: wayne@JapanBall.com