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Orix’s Kaneko on fire as Buffs chase playoffs

by Jason Coskrey

Just call Chihiro Kaneko a late bloomer.

The Orix Buffaloes hurler isn’t usually mentioned alongside Yu Darvish, Toshiya Sugiuchi, Tsuyoshi Wada and others as one of Japan’s top pitchers. Even so, none of the aforementioned pitchers can hold a candle to the numbers Kaneko has put up over the last two months.

Kaneko went 4-7 during the first three months of the season, including an 0-3 mark and a bloated 5.34 ERA over four starts in June.

Since then, no one has been better.

Kaneko has won 10 consecutive starts since July 1, taming the Seibu Lions in his last outing on Aug. 31. Over the past two months, Kaneko is 10-0 with a 1.82 ERA.

He’s earned his victories too, with seven coming against the Pacific League’s top three clubs.

After going winless in June, Kaneko began July with three consecutive shutouts, going on to win all five of his starts that month. He allowed four runs in 40 innings to end the month with a 0.90 ERA and PL Monthly MVP honors.

His winning ways carried over into August, where the Orix ace again won all five of his starts and pitched an inning of relief against the Chiba Lotte Marines on Aug. 22 to earn a hold for good measure.

“When I pitch, the lineup supports me,” Kaneko said after beating the Lions on Tuesday. “So I appreciate them.”

The last pitcher in franchise history to win at least 10 straight starts was Yoshinori Sato, who won 11 consecutive in 1985 for the Hankyu Braves, the forerunner of the Orix BlueWave.

Tetsuya Yoneda holds the Orix record with 14 straight wins in 1973.

As the season winds down, Kaneko is 14-7 — tying him with Wada (14-8) for the second most wins in Japanese baseball behind Sugiuchi (15-6) — with a 3.39 ERA.

Kaneko leads the NPB with 176 1/3 innings pitched and his 171 strikeouts rank third behind Sugiuchi (192) and Darvish (181). Among hurlers who qualify for the pitching titles, his 1.09 WHIP is the sixth-lowest in the NPB.

The last two months have made Kaneko a dark horse candidate for the Sawamura Award. More importantly, it’s kept the Buffaloes in the race for a spot in the Climax Series. After Tuesday’s games, Orix was 4 1/2 games out of third place and 5 1/2 behind the league-leading Fukuoka Softbank Hawks.

Big achievement: Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma beat the Chiba Lotte Marines on Tuesday to win his 100th career game.

Iwakuma is in his 10th year, having spent his first four seasons with the Kintetsu Buffaloes, and is 100-61 with a 3.32 ERA in his NPB career.

Hide the Colonel: Craig Brazell’s first-inning two-run home run against the Yokohama BayStars on Wednesday made him the first foreigner reach 40 four-baggers for Hanshin since Randy Bass hit 47 in 1986.

Bass’ first 40-homer season in a Hanshin uniform was in 1985 (he ended up with 54), the year the Tigers won their last Japan Series title and fans tossed a statue of KFC icon Colonel Sanders into the Dotonbori River — because they said it bore a slight resemblance to the American slugger — in celebration.

That triumph followed a fourth-place finish by the team in 1984.

So for Tigers fans, Wednesday was a good day to wonder what riches the immediate future holds while also reveling in the similarities of another hulking American slugger putting on a dazzling display of power for a Hanshin team coming off a fourth-place finish.

For KFC owners, it was a good time to make sure the bolts holding the Colonel in place are up to code.

Uncaged: Speaking of the Tigers, Brazell isn’t the only one punishing pitchers for Japan’s second-oldest team.

The Tigers laid waste to opposing pitching last month, finishing August with a scorching .320 batting average and 41 home runs. Hanshin collected 283 hits last month, and has ended games with at least 20 hits three times since Aug. 25.