The Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles would be happy to win the interleague title. So long as it helps get them back on track for the title they really want.
The Eagles limped into the interleague season, but have injected themselves back into contention in the Pacific League with a surprising run during the NPB’s season within a season.
“It was kind of my goal that we turn things around a bit,” Eagles manager Marty Brown said recently. “I don’t know how far under .500 we were, but I wanted to go back into our division with some momentum.”
The Eagles were 16-23 and fifth in the PL when the NPB’s two leagues began their annual competition on May 12.
Entering Wednesday’s games, Rakuten was 12-7-1 since that date and a half-game out of first place in the interleague standings with four games to play.
Despite Rakuten’s reversal of fortune, gaining ground in the PL standings has been an uphill battle. The rest of the league has followed the Eagles’ example against the CL, with the interleague race degenerating into a PL free-for-all.
Nevertheless, the Eagles are in good position to take home their first interleague title.
“I haven’t really even been paying attention to that stuff to be honest,” Brown said. “I’m just pleased to come to the ballpark and watch our team play right now.
“If we were to happen to win interleague, it’d be great. It’s not necessarily a primary goal for me. I think these guys just playing consistent baseball and giving themselves a chance to compete, that’s what I’m pleased with.”
The Rakuten skipper also has to be happy to see slugger Takeshi Yamasaki slowly, but surely coming around. Yamasaki had hit a NPB-high nine home runs and was batting .294 (through Tuesday) in interleague contests after beginning May with a .208 average and four homers.
“He’s been better,” Brown said. “I think interleague has helped him. I think playing first base and keeping him active on the field has helped him. He’s an infamous slow starter. You just have to stay with him and let him get going. I think now is the time he should carry on forward.”
Rakuten’s other crafty veteran, Norihiro Nakamura, is hitting .369 with three homers in May while Teppei Tsuchiya and Motohiro Shima have stepped up their play.
On the mound, Masahiro Tanaka has continued to shine (4-0, 2.70 ERA against the CL) during cross-league action and Ryohei Isaka is improving as he continues to get healthy.
Rakuten is hoping to use the steam they’ve built up during the interleague season to claw their way back into the PL Climax Series picture.
The Eagles will get a chance to gauge how much they’ve improved on June 18, when they resume intraleague play on the road against the Chiba Lotte Marines. They’ll return home following that series to find the Seibu Lions waiting at Kleenex Stadium with the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks waiting in the wings.
“We’ve proven that we can play consistent baseball,” Brown said. “Nobody’s doing anything over the top. They’re doing the things they’re capable of. So I’m very pleased with the way things have gone. Hopefully we can finish strong.”