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PL pitchers Kaneko, Darvish making case to win Sawamura Award

by Jason Coskrey

There’s nothing that says the Sawamura Award has to be given out.

In 1971, ’80, ’84 and 2000, for instance, no one was deemed worthy and the award was simply not awarded.

At times it’s looked as if that could happen this season.

No one pitcher has stood apart from the rest for the entire year and none of this season’s hurlers will meet the seven criteria (25 or more appearances and at least 10 complete games, 15 wins, a .600 winning percentage, 200 innings pitched, 150 strikeouts and a sub-2.50 ERA) Sawamura candidates are judged upon.

Still, the award shouldn’t go vacant this year, because two pitchers have pulled slightly ahead of the pack over the second half of the season. And it’s not the two who would’ve come to mind just two months ago.

A few weeks prior, Kenta Maeda (14-6, 2.25 ERA, 156 Ks) was turning heads for the Hiroshima Carp and lefties Tsuyoshi Wada (16-8, 3.10, 159) and Toshiya Sugiuchi (15-7, 3.73, 209) were powering the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks.

At that time, one of these three seemed destined to win the award.

Hokkaido Nippon Ham’s Yu Darvish was on the outskirts of the Sawamura equation then and Orix ace Chihiro Kaneko wasn’t even in the conversation.

Just a few weeks later, it’s one of those two who might bag the coveted award.

Kaneko is 17-7 with a 3.21 ERA and currently on a dominating run of success.

Since the end of July, Kaneko has won 13 consecutive starts, compiling a 1.86 ERA over that span.

The knock against him will be a 4-7 mark to start the year and the lowly state of the Buffaloes.

He’s racked up the wins at a torrid pace recently, however, and should have a chance to end the season on a 14-game win streak and at least tied for the most wins in the NPB.

As evidenced in recent years, a lot of weight is placed on victories when determining the Sawamura winner.

So despite superior numbers in a lot of categories, Darvish is at a disadvantage with just 12 wins, though he should get one more start this season.

Since the award’s introduction in 1947, only Hiroshima’s Yutaka Ono, the 1988 winner, has won with fewer than 15 wins. Ono was 13-7 with a 1.70 ERA and 183 strikeouts in 185 innings that season.

Low win total notwithstanding, Darvish has rebounded from a slow start — by his standard at least — and his other numbers are among the best in Japanese baseball.

At 12-7, Darvish currently has a 1.83 ERA, making him the lone pitcher — among those qualifying for the pitching awards — with an ERA below 2.00.

Darvish is also the NPB leader in complete games (9), tied with Sugiuchi for the most strikeouts in Japanese baseball (209) and has thrown 192 innings.

If he gets another start and tosses a complete game, Darvish will satisfy all but one of the Sawamura criteria. Such a case could be quite interesting with a possible 18-game winner in Kaneko and Wada also in the running.

Kaneko has the wins and is solid in all other areas and a 14th straight victory would be a sexy streak to dangle in front of voters. But take out the wins and the case for Darvish over Kaneko, or anybody else for that matter, is convincing.

There are other candidates such as Sugiuchi, Maeda and Wada.

Wada has the wins and a decent ERA but also has eight losses and lags far behind in strikeouts. Maeda has been the top pitcher in the Central League, but as one of the two pitchers lagging behind in wins, he’s eclipsed by Darvish. Sugiuchi also has solid numbers but an unflattering ERA will hinder his chances.

Over the past two months, Kaneko and Darvish have pulled away from the pack. Enough so that one of them should take home the 2010 Sawamura Award. Somebody deserves the Sawamura Award. And it should come down to Darvish and Kaneko.