/

Lions’ injury crisis allows cubs to bare teeth

by Kaz Nagatsuka

TOKOROZAWA, Saitama Pref. — Injuries are an inevitable factor in baseball. It’s no different for the Saitama Seibu Lions, who lost some key players last month.

But the team may not have to worry all that much.

The Pacific League-leading club appears to be handling the situation pretty well by filling the shoes of those injured players, including cleanup hitter Takeya Nakamura and starting pitchers Takayuki Kishi and Kazuhisa Ishii.

Thursday’s game — a 7-0 win over the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters — was a thriller for the Lions. Newcomer Masamitsu Hirano came through strong, tossing a three-hit shutout.

The Lions’ coaches certainly were expecting a decent outing from the obscure right-hander, who was a 2007 first-round draft pick but has earned only one win since then. But silencing the opponent for the entire game wasn’t in their plans at all.

“After his last outing against Orix (Buffaloes), we had good expectations for him,” Watanabe excitedly said of Hirano, who did not give up a hit for the first five frames and ended up allowing only three hits with no walks.

“But we never thought that he would do this great.”

Hirano seemed so settled despite what he showed on the hill. He was confident that he would be able to do well if he could locate the ball where he wanted to.

“I was in good shape,” said the 27-year-old, who was on the farm team at the beginning of the season. “And if I was pitching low in the zone, I knew I could hold opponents. I had confidence in myself.”

Watanabe was extremely pleased with Hirano’s performance. The manager even compared the gazelle-thin hurler to a rival team’s high-profile pitcher.

“(Hirano)’s split-fingered fastballs were working out pretty good. He was also grounding batters out by throwing fast breaking balls,” Watanabe said. “With that style, he reminded me of (Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles ace Hisashi) Iwakuma a bit today.

“While we’re having tough times with our starting rotation, we’re happy to have a guy like this.”

“It was our ‘miscalculation,’ ” Seibu pitching coach Tetsuya Shiozaki joked after the game.

Likewise, skipper Hisanobu Watanabe showed up in front of reporters with a satisfied smile.

Meanwhile, 23-year-old Ryo Sakata also gives relief to Watanabe on offense.

Behind Hirano’s exceptional performance on the mound, Sakata assisted the pitcher with a home run, a no-doubt-about-it blast into the right-field stands in the fourth inning.

Sakata, a second-year outfielder, took the left-field spot in Seibu’s starting lineup on July 6 against the Buffaloes. He immediately showed his phenomenal longball ability by going yard twice in the series.

He added two more in the following series against the Eagles, and Thursday’s homer was his fifth in only eight games. His RBI total is 10 and his slugging percentage is .920 through Thursday’s games.

“Right now, I step up to the plate, thinking I’m going to hit by any means,” said Sakata, who is nicknamed “Hidari no okawari” for his slugging power which is comparable with Nakamura (whose nickname is Okawari-kun. Hidari means left-handed).

“I struck out in my first at-bat and was so determined to do something.”

Seibu is the first and only team to reach 50 wins (51-37) among Nippon Professional Baseball’s 12 clubs through Thursday’s games. But it is not necessarily enjoying an easy path, partially due to the aforementioned injuries. The team has a winning record after interleague play ended, but just barely — at 12-11.

But think of it this way: The Lions could’ve been worse if those fresh faces had not stepped up.

Besides Hirano and Sakata, there is also Takuya Hara, who started at shortstop when Hiroyuki Nakajima got hurt in April and now fills in at third base for Nakamura. His energetic play is a vital asset for the squad as well.

The Lions surely do not want to see their players get hurt. But if it happens, the Lions know that it can give young players the opportunity to gain playing time.

“Having injuries is something I expect over a long season,” said Watanabe, a former pitcher for Seibu. “Up to now, I think we’ve been able to fill the holes of those absent players.”