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Pitching down stretch puts Dragons in position to take CL pennant

by Jason Coskrey

The Chunichi Dragons got off to a slow start but they’re sprinting toward the finish line.

In the last month, the Dragons have snapped Tony Blanco out of an offensive funk, kept Kazuhiro Wada and Masahiko Morino playing at a high level, and watched their pitching staff round into form.

The result has been a 18-8-1 record since Aug. 17 (11-2-1 in September) and a real shot at going from third-place afterthought to Central League champion.

The Chunichi offense has been clicking, but it’s their pitching that has ignited the run.

The key has been getting unexpected performances out of the less heralded members of their pitching staff, Kenichi Nakata, Daisuke Yamai and Masahiro Yamamoto.

This strange triumvirate of a fairly unrecognized player, a man who has twice in his career gone eight innings without allowing a hit — but never nine — and an aging star pitching as if he wasn’t on the wrong side of 40 years old, who collectively may end up being the difference in the CL pennant race.

With pitcher Kazuki Yoshimi injured, the other members of the staff came together and pitched at an extremely high level at the time of the year pitching counts most.

Even with Chen Wei-yin at the top of the rotation, the Dragons would not be where they are without a huge bump in performance from the players at the back of it.

The Dragons’ schedule gets spotty later in the year and turns into a myriad of extended layoffs that includes a possible scenario which could see Chunichi fall from first to third in the standings after the conclusion of its regular season.

With so much uncertainty at the end of the schedule, the Dragons face a mighty challenge trying to keep their rhythm and stay fresh.

No matter what happens, if Chunichi keep pitching the way it has the last few weeks — especially with Yoshimi back in the fold — it figures to be a scary opponent in October.

Endgame: The season won’t be over until the end of the month, but the biggest series of the Pacific League campaign begins this weekend in Fukuoka.

On Saturday, the first-place Seibu Lions travel to Yahoo Dome for a three-game series against the second-place Fukuoka Softbank Hawks.

Seibu enters the series with a 3 1/2-game lead in the standings and a magic number of four with six games left to play for both teams.

Softbank can stay in the pennant race by winning at least two out of three. Anything less, and the Lions will have all but wrapped up the pennant by the time they return home to face the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles on Sept. 23.

What else is new?: Orix Buffaloes hurler Chihiro Kaneko just keeps on winning.

Kaneko defeated the Seibu Lions on Tuesday to improve to 12-0 in his last 12 starts.

The last time Kaneko lost a start was on June 24, and the right-hander is 16-7 with a 3.40 ERA this season.

He’s now two away from the franchise record of 14 consecutive wins set by Tetsuya Yoneda in 1973.

Interestingly enough, the 12 games Kaneko has won over the past two months surpasses the 11 wins he had all of last season, which was his previous career high.

Major move: Infielder Kazuo Matsui has returned with to Japan for the offseason and will spend the next few weeks planning his future.

Matsui, the 1998 Pacific League MVP and veteran of seven MLB seasons, has not ruled out a return to the NPB, although he also may consider accepting a minor league offer in the United States.