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Curtain beginning to fall on careers of some of Japan’s top closers

by Jason Coskrey

Is Takuya Asao the next great Japanese closer? He might have to be, because as age creeps up on some of the league’s top firemen, the next generation will soon have to step up and prove its worth.

Japanese baseball will soon be entering a phase where a veritable who’s who of closers will be calling time on their careers and making way for younger stars to stake their claim.

Right now, the numbers show the standard bearer among closers is still Asao’s Chunichi Dragons teammate Hitoki Iwase, who will go down as one of the greats.

Iwase will almost certainly become Japan’s all-time career saves leader next season, needing just 11 to overtake Shingo Takatsu’s 286. A normal campaign should also be enough for him to become the first to reach 300 saves in Japan.

He’s coming off his second straight season with at least 41 saves, but there were signs of chinks in the armor at times last season. Father time is gaining ground quickly on the 36-year-old’s tenure as a closer and there are murmurs the Dragons are preparing a backup plan in case he falters. Just the thought of someone other than Iwase regularly closing out games for the Dragons is a reminder that a golden age is nearing its conclusion.

Iwase is the active saves leader and second all time with 276. Among active hurlers joining him in the top 10 all-time saves list are Masahide Kobayashi (fourth with 228), Marc Kroon (sixth with 177), Katsuhiro Nagakawa (seventh with 164), Takahiro Mahara (eighth with 161), Kiyoshi Toyoda (ninth with 157) and Kyuji Fujikawa (10th with 155).

Most of the above are near the end of their careers, with Kobayashi and Toyoda no longer closing on a regular basis and Kroon still in search of a team for 2011.

So the time is drawing closer for the next generation to begin to make its mark as the legends of today fade quietly into the background.

Asao could very well be the one to lead the charge. he finished second in the Central League MVP voting after leading the league with 47 holds and finishing 12-3 with a 1.68 ERA in 80 1/3 innings. While Asao was reliable in most situations last season, he never seemed to be able to find his comfort level in the biggest moments as well as Iwase once did.

Still, he may be the best of a small group that includes teammate Akifumi Takahashi and Yomiuri Giants duo Tetsuya Yamaguchi and Daisuke Ochi, who will compete with Yuya Kubo to take over for Kroon, whom the Giants opted not to retain this winter.

Aside from that group, the landscape looks empty for the time being, with BayStars closer Shun Yamaguchi and Fukuoka Softbank Hawks reliever Tadashi Settsu looking destined for starting roles sooner rather than later.

Even Fujikawa, only 30, may not be around much longer, still harboring a desire to move to the major leagues.

Baseball, like all sports, is cyclical in nature. Stars come and then they go. The game holds on to its past with a vice grip but its players will never be able to maintain the brilliance of summers gone by.

The days of Takatsu and the “Daimajin,” Kazuhiro Sasaki, are over and Iwase and Co. will soon join them in the history books. Time will tell if today’s young stars can live up to the lofty standards they’ll leave behind.