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Recent run of success gives BayStars glimmer of hope

by Jason Coskrey

While it’s too early to proclaim the winds of change have swept over the suddenly surging Yokohama BayStars, for the first time in a long while, there’s something in the air.

Showing more life recently than over the past two seasons, the BayStars entered Monday’s contest against the Hiroshima Carp having won six of their last eight games.

Four of those wins were in games decided by two runs or less, opportunities the BayStars would’ve let slip away just a season ago.

“When you’re in last place, the only way to go is up,” newcomer Terrmel Sledge said. “No one is really expecting anything out of us.”

Taking advantage of a long stretch of games devoid of the Hanshin Tigers, Yomiuri Giants and Chunichi Dragons, the BayStars are building confidence and gelling as a team.

“I think the atmosphere here right now is good,” first baseman Seiichi Uchikawa said. “Things have been great since Sledge and (Jose) Castillo joined the team.

“I think they have blended in well with the players who were already here. Now we are starting to come together as a team.”

Yokohama has gotten contributions from all across the board during their run, which has taken them to fourth place in the early Central League standings.

Sledge has two homers and seven RBIs, pitcher Naoyuki Shimizu is 2-0 and former major leaguer Tomokazu Ohka debuted with 6 2/3 solid innings in a win on Sunday.

They aren’t the only ones, with pitcher Hayato Terahara and slugger Shuichi Murata among others making key contributions.

In the bullpen, closer Shun Yamaguchi has nailed things down in masterful fashion, picking up five saves and striking out six in five scoreless innings.

His fellow relievers have mostly gotten the job done as well, with Hiroki Sanada having won in relief on Friday and Shigeki Ushida and Shintaro Ejiri chipping in with solid innings.

In the grand scheme of things, eight games against the lower half of the league doesn’t mean the BayStars are on the rise.

But a turnaround has to start somewhere, and the past eight games have laid a foundation to build upon.

“It’s hard to sustain it day in and day out,” Sledge said. “Not one guy on this team is going to do it. We need pitching, defense and hitting. Not only hitting, but timely hitting. Baseball’s a tough game.”

As good as the team has looked recently, a tough stretch of games could provide a brutal litmus test.

After the remaining two games of their series against the Carp, the BayStars face the Giants in a two-game series.

They then open the interleague schedule with consecutive series against the Chiba Lotte Marines and Seibu Lions, the top teams in the Pacific League.

That stretch should provide a gauge of how far Yokohama has come and how much more work is left to be done.

No matter the result, the team is hoping to be in position to contend — as improbable as it seems — by the All-Star break.

Sledge is hoping to be in third place at that point, then see how the rest of the year plays out.

“We have to feel that way,” Sledge said. “We can’t be trying to stay out of last place or we’ll be in last place.

“We have to have the incentive to try to catch the Giants. They’re way ahead, but we have to have that motivation. I think we can finish in third place.”