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Kaneko continues push toward elite status

by Jason Coskrey

Chihiro Kaneko showed up Kenta Maeda twice Friday night.

Not only did the Orix Buffaloles ace out-pitch Maeda, though not by much, he helped secure a 3-1 win over the Hiroshima Carp with a two-out RBI double off Maeda in the seventh inning. The hit was Kaneko’s first since a single against the Hanshin Tigers June 9, 2012, and the first double of his career — though he pitches in the Pacific League which affords him only a handful of plate appearances each year.

“I think it was a fluke,” he said during the hero interview following the game. “It was a fastball near the middle of the plate and I thought I should swing.”

More important was that he pitched well in a marquee matchup between the players most expected to take up the mantle of Japan’s best pitcher after Masahiro Tanaka’s exit.

“Our winning streak was stopped in the last game, so I thought this game was really important,” Kaneko said.

Once Tanaka signed with the New York Yankees, the best-pitcher label was essentially bestowed upon Maeda, who this season has been trailed by a caravan of MLB scouts much in the way Yu Darvish and Tanaka were in previous years. Maeda was hailed as the next in line to conquer Japan and head west. While he may very well do so, Kaneko is trying to finally steal some of the spotlight for himself.

In their first, and possibly only, meeting of the season, Kaneko struck out six over eight scoreless innings, allowing seven hits and walking two. He mixed his pitches well, and as usual got a number of swinging strikes and protect-swing foul balls with his splitter. He wasn’t sharp at all times, but came through when needed and even flashed a little glove in the seventh, making a nifty grab on a comebacker screaming toward his head then throwing to first to double up Ryuhei Matsuyama. Maeda gave up three runs — two earned — on five hits and struck out seven over seven innings in the contest.

Kaneko has been the better of the two through nine starts for each. They have identical 4-3 records, though Kaneko has more complete-game victories (2 to 0), strikeouts (91 to 46), and a lower ERA (1.41 to 2.36).

Kaneko has been a top-shelf talent for some time now, but has often been swallowed up in the sea of attention afforded to Darvish and Tanaka, clearly a step above, and, to a lesser extent, Maeda. Kaneko won 17 games with a 3.30 ERA in 2010, when Maeda won the Sawamura Award, and last season was the only pitcher to hit all seven Sawamura selection criteria, even as Tanaka, who was a perfect 24-0 and hit six of the benchmarks, took home the hardware.

What’s largely kept Kaneko out of the elite circle has been consistency. Where the aforementioned trio have managed to string together consecutive above-average seasons, Kaneko has mostly alternated between great and average, in part due to injuries.

He’s gotten off to a strong start this year, and could be poised to finally produce back-to-back truly great seasons and claim a few accolades for himself.

Fan-friendly?: To celebrate 10 years of interleague play, NPB decided to give Pacific League fans a fun treat by reversing the designated-hitter rule so PL fans can have the chance to see their teams’ pitchers step in the batter’s box at home.

The experience has resulted in fans getting the rare chance to watch pitchers make outs in a different setting, and not much else.

Each team has played two series in PL parks so far, and pitchers are a combined 7-for-83 at the plate in those games. The Orix Buffaloes’ Chihiro Kaneko has the only extra-base hit with a RBI double, and the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks’ Jason Standridge was the only other pitcher to register a RBI.

The Yomiuri Giants’ Kan Otake drew the lone walk among pitchers, though a few laid down successful sacrifice bunts.

Celebrated two-way star Shohei Otani of the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters fizzled in his first opportunity to hit and pitch at Sapporo Dome, finishing 0-for-3 at the plate, and allowing five runs in five-plus innings on the mound against the Chunichi Dragons.

Thief: Yuichi Honda of the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks stole the 300th base of his career on Tuesday.

Honda has been among Japan’s best base-stealers for years and really made his name over a three-year stretch that saw him swipe 43 bags in 2009, 59 in 2010 and 60 in 2011.

He’s come back to earth since then, but Tuesday’s milestone was his 17th in 2014 and came in his 44th game of the year. He managed just 22 in 120 games last season, so the sign may be pointing to a return to form and perhaps the sixth 30-plus steal season of his career.