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Carp roster built to contend for title in 2014

by Wayne Graczyk

There is excitement in Hiroshima where the Carp are off to a nice start in the Central League pennant race.

Manager Kenjiro Nomura has the red-helmeted ones in first place in the flag chase, and it appears to be no fluke.

Watching Hiroshima play, you can see there is talent in all facets of the game. The lineup is strong, there is speed and power, the defense has improved, and the pitching staff is solid with five quality starters, excellent middle relievers and set-up men and a quality closer in American Kam Mickolio.

Following ace Kenta Maeda, the starting rotation includes Yusuke Nomura, American Bryan Bullington and two mature rookies in Daichi Osera and Aren Kuri — all right-handers — with lefty Junpei Shinoda taking a turn when the schedule gets heavy. It is more than enough to offset the loss of veteran Kan Otake who left via free agency for the Yomiuri Giants during the past offseason.

Manager Nomura has also established a pre-pre-set-up, pre-set-up, set-up, closer situation where the “winning pattern” sees the starter going five or six innings while the offense gets a lead. When someone is needed to pitch in the sixth inning, Ren Nakata has done the job. Then Ryuji Ichioka works the seventh and Katsuhiro Nagakawa the eighth followed by Mickolio in the save slot.

“Ichioka has looked really good so far,” said his manager. Mickolio is also impressed with the newcomer, saying, “He’s a really good guy and a great teammate, fun to be with in the bullpen,” but serious on the mound. Ichioka joined the Carp this season from the Giants as compensation for Otake, and there is speculation he may prove to be as valuable to Hiroshima as Otake is to Yomiuri. Maybe more.

After all, Otake at 31 has a reputation of being a .500 pitcher, going 10-10 in 2013 for the Carp and with a career record of 74-78. Ichioka, at 23, is just coming into his own.

The spark plug in the lineup so far has been Ryosuke Kikuchi, who became the Carp’s regular at second base last season after Akihiro Higashide was injured in the spring and missed the entire year. Kikuchi made the most of the opportunity and is even better this year than last.

Speedster Kikuchi is batting .294 and leading the Central League with seven stolen bases. He’s made some sparkling plays in the field as well and is hitting second in the lineup ahead of U.S. fence-busters Brad “Big Country” Eldred and Hawaiian Kila Ka’aihue.

One Carp veteran who desperately wants to go to the Japan Series this October is 35-year-old outfielder Jun Hirose. A second-round draft choice in 2001, Hirose has pretty much been a platoon player during his 13 seasons — all with Hiroshima.

Besides the fact he’s only played in the post-season once (last year when the Carp finished third and went to the Climax Series despite a won-loss record below .500), Hirose wants to win the CL championship this season for two reasons.

“We have to win while Kenta (Maeda) is still here,” said Hirose, referring to the high probability the Carp’s top pitcher will leave via posting for the major leagues following the 2014 season.

“Also, I want to win it for our skipper because he’s my sempai.” Manager Nomura and Hirose played their prep school baseball at Saeki Kakujo High School in Oita Prefecture on the island of Kyushu.

The atmosphere surrounding the ball club and Mazda Zoom Zoom Stadium is somewhat reminiscent of 1975 when Hiroshima won its first Central League pennant playing at the old Shimin Kyujo ballpark.

That Carp team, with superstar sluggers Koji Yamamoto and Sachio Kinugasa and Americans Gail Hopkins and Richie “Shane” Scheinblum, also got off to a great start and rode the winds of confidence and momentum through October.

Hiroshima made its last Japan Series appearance in 1991, losing to the Seibu Lions in seven games. It is about time the club gets back there and, with the players on the current roster, 2014 is as good a year as any.

Diamond Dust: Can you believe the baseball controversy has come up again? First, the NPB ball was too inconsistent. Then it was too deadened. Now it’s too lively again. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. The problem can be solved easily once and for all — tomorrow. Just use the same ball used by the major leagues.

Sure, it’s a long season, but the fantastic start by Hanshin Tigers outfielder Matt Murton reminds me of the April batting performance enjoyed by Bobby Rose of the Yokohama BayStars in 1999. Rose broke out of the starting gate in similar fashion 15 years ago and wound up with season stats of 37 home runs, 153 RBIs (the second-highest total in Japanese baseball history) and a .369 batting average. He won the RBI and hitting titles.

Murton leads the Central League with 29 RBIs and a .405 average while hitting six home runs. Prior to an opening weekend series game against the Yomiuri Giants at Tokyo Dome, Murton indicated he was looking forward to hitting fifth in the Hanshin lineup this season.

“It will give me more chances to drive in runs,” he said. Obviously, he has made the most of those opportunities so far.

*** Contact Wayne Graczyk at: Wayne@JapanBall.com