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Carp looking to turn things around after disappointing start

by Wayne Graczyk

There were high hopes for the Hiroshima Carp heading into the 2013 NPB season but, almost a third of the way into the schedule, the results so far might well be described as a still wait-and-see situation.

The Carp are in the middle of the Central League standings, treading water with hopes key players who suffered injuries will return in time to propel the team to more winning ways.

Following a fourth-place finish in 2012, manager Kenjiro Nomura’s “Red Helmets” were expected to vie for a Climax Series berth this year. However, injuries and inconsistent play have so far held down the team.

For one, starting second baseman Akihiro Higashide is out for the season after sustaining a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee during an intra-squad game on Feb. 24.

“The loss of Higashide is huge,” Nomura said during the opening weekend of the season about the absence of his leadoff man. In addition, he noted slugging first baseman Kenta Kurihara was still not back to normal after missing most of the 2012 campaign with an elbow injury.

“I’ll use Kurihara as a pinch hitter and play him whenever I can,” Nomura stated. “Hopefully he will be back to full strength before too long, but we have ‘Big Country’ Brad Eldred to play first and several backup players who can step in and hold the fort.”

Nomura also said at that time he was expecting third baseman Shota Dobayashi to set an example. “I am looking to him for leadership,” Nomura said, hoping the still-21-year-old hot corner man can cut down on errors and strikeouts, two negative categories where he was among CL leaders last season.

“Our pitching staff appears to be strong,” Nomura noted. His only concern there seemed to be the late start of ace Kenta Maeda following his work for Team Japan in the 2013 World Baseball Classic.

Through games of Wednesday, the Carp were in fourth place in the Central League standings, at 17-21-1. Kurihara is still not right and was sent to the farm team May 5. Dobayashi is batting only .227 and is among league leaders with 35 strikeouts and seven errors, while the Carp defense continues to be a concern for Nomura.

Second baseman Ryosuke Kikuchi, filling in for Higashide as the leadoff hitter and second baseman, has committed a league-high 11 miscues while batting just .236.

Moreover, Eldred was hit by a pitch and sustained a broken finger on April 23, and prolific pinch hitter, the 41-year-old Tomonori Maeda, was also cut down with a broken wrist after being hit while batting in a game the following night.

So, Nomura has put together a patchwork lineup each day, and the results have been mixed and inconsistent. His trio of right-handed starting rotation pitchers, made up of Kenta Maeda, Kan Otake and Bryan Bullington, have thrown well while not always getting run support. Closer Kam Mickolio has also proved reliable.

It is a long season, though, as Nomura pointed out during his second visit to Tokyo Dome during Golden Week. Being this is his fourth year at the Hiroshima helm, the manager knows his job is on the line, and there will be no excuses if the Carp fail to make the Climax Series again. The team has yet to qualify for the postseason since the Central League began the playoff format in 2007.

A footnote about the Carp, the NPB baseball and the increased number of home runs in Japan this season. In a recent conversation I had with a friend and Hiroshima fan at Tokyo Dome on May 4, we were talking about the fact smaller players who almost never reach the fences — and even pitchers — are hitting homers this year. If “The Flea” hits one, we agreed, we would know for sure this year’s ball is jumping.

“The Flea” is 168-cm, 75-kg, Hiroshima pinch-running specialist Naoki Nakahigashi. He was given that nickname by his first Carp manager, American Marty Brown, when the catcher-outfielder joined the team in 2007. In his previous six years, the small-bodied Nakahigashi had no homers and just five RBIs while batting a composite .214.

“The Flea” has gone deep. In the Carp’s May 14 interleague opener against the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks at Hiroshima, he homered to right in the first inning, went 3-for-5 on the night and was batting .462.

That alone should provide hope for Nomura and the Carp who began the interleague tournament with consecutive victories over Fukuoka.

Diamond Dust: While “The Flea” is not a home run title contender, there is excitement in the Central League homer derby with foreign sluggers Tony Blanco of the Yokohama BayStars and Wladimir Balentien of the Yakult Swallows.

Most players won’t say a number when asked how many home runs they expect to hit in a season, but Balentien, in his pursuit of a third consecutive CL long ball title, says he expects to hit 42 in 2013. This despite the fact he missed the first two weeks of the season rehabbing from a groin injury sustained while playing for the Netherlands in this year’s World Baseball Classic.

As of Thursday, Blanco was smoking with 19 homers on the year; Balentien was still playing catch-up with 11.

During their recent stop in Yokohama to open the NPB interleague season against the BayStars, Rakuten Eagles pitchers Darrell Rasner and Brandon Duckworth took time out for a visit to the U.S. Yokosuka Naval Base to greet and thank U.S. troops and Japanese nationals who support them. They stopped at numerous places on the base and went onboard the USS George Washington.

Finally this week, a memorial service for former Hankyu Braves pitcher Brad “The Animal” Lesley, who died April 28, is scheduled for 3 p.m. on June 9 at the Congregational Church of the Chimes in Sherman Oaks, California.

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Contact Wayne Graczyk at: Wayne@JapanBall.com