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Carp face long uphill battle in quest to recapture golden era success

by Jason Coskrey

When the Hiroshima Carp travel to Nagoya to face the Chunichi Dragons in their season opener next month, they should bring along pen and paper to take notes.

Because if the Carp are ever going to find their way out of their recent doldrums, the path the Dragons have blazed recently is a good one to follow.

Carp fans right now are enduring some of the franchise’s darkest days. The current team is mere a shell of the club that won the Japan Series in 1979, ’80 and ’84 behind stars “Mr. Akaheru” (Red Helmet) Koji Yamamoto and “Tetsujin” Sachio Kinugasa during the glory days of the Akaheru era.

Since last capturing the Central League pennant in 1991, the Carp have recorded a winning record just five times. The team has three A-Class finishes over that period and has ended the year in fifth place or worse in nine of the last 11 seasons.

Adding insult to injury, the team has seen some of its biggest stars leave over the years, notably losing Tomoaki Kanemoto and Takahiro Arai among others. Carp fans will note with some trepidation that slugger Kenta Kurihara is nearing free agency and could be the next out the door.

The club’s failed courtship of Seiichi Uchikawa over the winter also underscores the trouble they have attracting high-profile free agents.

But there is hope, and on Opening Day it’ll be staring back at them from the home dugout.

The Dragons have won a pair of CL titles and made three trips to the Japan Series — with one win — since 2006 with a team mostly built around a strong pitching staff. Chunichi’s highest ERA during that span was 3.59 in 2007.

The team has surrounded it’s stable of arms with a few smart draft choices and were rewarded after recent flyers on aging free agents Norihiro Nakamura and Kazuhiro Wada paid huge dividends.

The Dragons have also been shrewd in foreign signings, hitting home runs with players such as Alex Ochoa and Tyrone Woods earlier in the decade and recently with Chen Wei-Yin and Tony Blanco.

Hiroshima has the makings of a good pitching staff in the future if reigning Sawamura Award winner Kenta Maeda stays among the elite, young lefty Yuki Saito continues to develop and Yuya Fukui ends up living up to the hype.

There is also the Carp Academy in the Dominican Republic which has a pool of foreign talent waiting to be developed.

Still, the team’s scouts will need to get lucky on the import market as recent acquisitions such as Justin Huber and Jeff Fiorentino, haven’t helped things at all.

The Carp probably aren’t going to contend for a playoff spot this season, but they can sow the seeds for success. Maeda and Fukui are set up to be the future and the team will hope Saito and rookie hurlers Yuki Iwami and Masaya Kanemaru develop into solid options at various places.

They’ll need some help on offense, which would require convincing Kurihara to stick around and getting the most out of a group that doesn’t have a lot of pop.

The Dragons have the advantage of playing in a pitcher’s park, but a stockpile of young arms, if developed properly, could signal the winds of change in Hiroshima.

The Carp may be slowly putting together the pieces, but it’ll take a steady hand, patience, smart moves and a little bit of luck in order to usher in an another Akaheru revolution anytime soon.