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Winning, confidence return to Fighters

by Kaz Nagatsuka

The Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters are showing people that once their cogwheels are engaged, they can once again be as good as any other team.

With an invigorating, 7-0 victory over the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks at Tokyo Dome on Thursday, the reigning Pacific League champions bettered their record after interleague play ended to 15-3, moving two games above the .500 mark (41-39-2) and climbing into fourth place.

The Fighters were 14 games below .500 on May 4, but have quietly made the climb from the bottom of the standings. But their days of struggling and suffering seem to be finally over now.

At the end of the day, winning may have been the best medicine for the northern club.

Nippon Ham’s mental prop, Hichori Morimoto, insisted that the team is regaining confidence that it once had.

“We’re getting used to winning,” Morimoto said after Thursday’s game, in which he hit a key three-run homer for his second dinger of the season.

“So even when we are behind in a game, we no longer get hasty and feel like we can rally back late in it.”

One of the reasons for their struggles in the first two months of the season was injuries to regular players, such as Morimoto and shortstop Makoto Kaneko.

But even after returned to the lineup, the Fighters have not necessarily gone injury-free and had to manage to fill spots with several other young players.

Right now, the team is missing Shinji Takahashi and Tomohiro Nioka, both of whom play first base. So manager Masataka Nashida has been starting outfielder Atsunori Inaba there recently (Interestingly enough, Inaba uses his outfield glove at the position, though).

The absence of the two players is not small, considering their offensive production. (They didn’t re-sign slugger Terrmel Sledge after last season).

However, Morimoto claimed, it is not part of the team’s character to make excuses for a loss because someone is not on the roster.

“You guys talk about Shinji is missing, Nioka is missing, but it’s not that,” Morimoto said. “The Fighters’ style of game is to play as a team and everybody tries to set the table for others.”

On the other hand, skipper Nashida is cautious. The fact that his team now has a winning record doesn’t mean it will finish the season with a winning record, nor guarantee it a postseason berth and a pennant.

“We can’t afford to think about it,” Nashida said, responding to a question about how he feels now that the team is two games above .500. “We are a team that was 14 games below .500. We’ve got to go one game at a time.”

Nashida added that although the team is on a roll right now, that momentum could subside all of a sudden.

“You never know that you could start losing continuously,” he said. “You could lose three games in a row in a series.”

Nashida is at the helm and it is understandable that he spoke discreetly because the season has only reached the halfway point.

But his players need to follow their boss. And as a matter of fact, it is a good thing to set a positive goal for the players.

Morimoto said that Nippon Ham stays focused on the only prize it want in its hands in the end.

“Honestly, we’re aiming for the championship,” Morimoto said with a smile.