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Swallows could have what it takes to challenge CL’s Big Three in ’11

by Jason Coskrey

Norichika Aoki led Japanese baseball with a .358 batting average and turned out the second most single-season hits (209) in Central League history last year.

Yet there he stood at the edge of the home dugout, bat in hand, on Saturday as a home crowd satisfied after their Tokyo Yakult Swallows’ 3-0 victory over the Hiroshima Carp filed out of Jingu Stadium.

“Stay out of sight until the fans are gone or they’ll never leave,” coach Takao Ise said as he sat on the dugout bench, hands that collected 570 hits over 14 NPB seasons, tucked comfortably into the pockets of his team jacket.

So Aoki, probably needing the least extra work of any of the Swallows, and a handful of his teammates waited.

Once the stadium was empty, they took the field for a short post-game batting practice session.

“They’re going to practice,” asked one reporter. “Why not,” responded another.

Why not indeed. Why not practice a little more. In fact while we’re at it, as it pertains to booking a place in the Central League Climax Series, why not these Swallows?

Yakult enters the season as an afterthought, expected by many to finish fourth in the CL, behind the Chunichi Dragons, Hanshin Tigers and Yomiuri Giants, and ahead of the Carp and Yokohama BayStars.

The Birds think they can fly higher than that in a full season under manager Junji Ogawa, who led them to a 59-36-3 mark after taking over for Shigeru Takada on May 26 last year.

“We just need to ride that momentum,” said first baseman Josh Whitesell, an in-season addition himself in 2010. “We’ve got a good squad. Everything starts with our pitching, so as long as our guys on the mound can stay healthy and put up some innings for us, the offense should be able to do its job and come through and score some runs.

“Hopefully that can translate into some wins.”

Ogawa’s appointment helped light a fire under the Swallows at the plate, with the team hitting .283 under his watch, compared to a paltry .236 through the first 46 games under Takada.

The Swallows are confident that form can carry over into the upcoming season.

“Our batting condition has been good so far,” Ogawa said on Saturday. “There’s even a chance (Osamu) Hamanaka could make the opening day roster.”

Even so, they’ll need a young, but talented, pitching staff to weather the storm against the Giants and Tigers’ big bats then go toe-to-toe with the Dragons’ arsenal of arms.

Shohei Tateyama packed on the muscle over the winter and has been on top of his game, not allowing a run over his last 25 innings, and Kyohei Muranaka could lift the back end of the rotation with a solid campaign alongside Yoshinori Sato.

Yakult will still need more of the same at the plate from Whitesell and Aoki, more production from the rest of the lineup and a good season by new addition Wladimir Balentien, who will play a key role, for better or worse, while Aaron Guiel is on the mend.

Because even if everything falls into place, cracking the top three will be a tall order.

The Giants and Tigers have more firepower — and star power for that matter — while the Dragons’ pitching always keeps them near the top of the heap.

The Swallows don’t lag far behind. They just need to answer the call if opportunity knocks.

“We’ve gotta beat them,” Whitesell said. “Especially in those head-to-head games. Then we’ve gotta take care of business when we play the BayStars and the Carp. Then when we get our opportunity, we have to be able to at least take two or three in those series against the Giants, Dragons and Tigers.

“We just have to try to be consistent and put together consistent months and hopefully that translates into one of those top three slots.”