Yusei Kikuchi is scheduled to toe the rubber for the Seibu Lions Friday night against the Orix Buffaloes as Japanese baseball gets back to intraleague competition this weekend.
Kikuchi (7-2) has been among the best pitchers in Japan this season, and will take the mound after coming within two outs of a no-hitter in his last outing.
The left-hander is one of three pitchers, all Pacific Leaguers, who have found a way to enter late June with sub-2.00 ERAs despite the tide shifting back to hitters somewhat this year.
Kikuchi leads the triumvirate, and Japan, with a 1.41 ERA, and is followed by Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles ace Masahiro Tanaka (1.57) and the Orix Buffaloes’ Brandon Dickson (1.89). Lions submariner Kazuhisa Makita (2.01) was among their ranks as recently as this past Saturday before allowing four earned runs against the Yokohama BayStars.
Hanshin Tigers hurler Jason Standridge is the leader in the Central League with a 2.23 ERA.
Dickson has been effective, but Kikuchi and Tanaka have been the standouts among the PL pitchers.
Kikuchi is 7-2 this season with opponents hitting just .179 against him. The Seibu pitcher also has a 0.96 WHIP and 65 strikeouts in 76 1/3 innings. Tanaka, meanwhile, is a perfect 9-0 with a 1.04 WHIP and 74 strikeouts in 92 innings.
Kikuchi has the better ERA, but Tanaka holds the edge in terms of fielding independent pitching (FIP), which measures the things pitchers have control over (walks, hit by pitches, strikeouts and home runs) and is thought by many to present a more accurate reflection of a hurler’s contributions. Tanaka’s FIP is 2.49 while Kikuchi clocks in at 3.07.
The performance the PL trio has been able to put forth may be even more impressive given the recent revelations that NPB secretly altered the standardized ball over the offseason, which led to an increase in home runs and other offensive statistics.
Two-horse race: Prior to the start of interleague play, the race for the Central League pennant was simply the Yomiuri Giants, Hanshin Tigers, and everyone else.
A few weeks later, nothing has changed.
The Giants and Tigers were the only two CL teams to finished above .500 against the Pacific League and further increased their lead on the other four CL teams, who at this rate could be resigned to playing for third before very long.
Yomiuri went 13-10-1 during interleague play and managed to increase its lead over the second-place Tigers to 2 1/2 games. Hanshin meanwhile went 12-11-1 and extended its lead over the third-place team (currently the Hiroshima Carp) from seven games to 11 1/2 games.
Jack-of-all-trades: The Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters wrapped up their interleague campaign on Tuesday night by finally unleashing two-way rookie Shohei Otani as both their starting and No. 5 hitter.
Otani became the first starting pitcher in 50 years to bat as part of the cleanup trio (3-4-5) and handled himself well in both roles. The rookie maxed out at 157 kph on the mound and was 1-for-3 with a double and an RBI at the plate.
Otani likely won’t get another opportunity to pull double duty in the same game this season with the Fighters returning to Pacific League competition, where the designated hitter rule will be in effect.