The Fukuoka Softbank Hawks were scheduled to play their 48th game of the season on Monday night at Nagoya Dome, placing the Kyushu club beyond the quarter-pole of the season but with a lot of games still between them and the halfway mark.
Softbank (28-18-1) entered Monday’s interleague tilt against the Chunichi Dragons in second place in the Pacific League and 10 games above .500, two more than they were at any point last season.
A few things are different when compared to the 2013 season, which has to be pretty much the way Softbank wants it. Last season’s team was an inexplicable mess, chocked to the brim with talent on offense, but saddled with a rotation so inefficient it dragged the team down to a fourth-place finish in the PL.
With patience apparently a virtue in short supply in Fukuoka, the Hawks brass threw money to the wind and signed a group of players who, whether good or bad, were going to be put in position to have a major impact on the season.
That being said, the initial returns have been encouraging.
Among the new starters, Kenichi Nakata (who has a 3.07 ERA) has five wins, while fellow newcomers Jason Standridge (2.60) and Brian Wolfe (3.04) each have four, not bad for a staff that had just two pitchers with more than four wins, a painfully low benchmark, last year.
In the bullpen, new closer Dennis Sarfate entered Monday night’s games leading Japan with 16 saves and having allowed only a single run in 23⅔ innings, striking out 36 in the process. Another reliever, Hideki Okajima is also off to a productive start, leading Japan with 14 holds while helping get the ball to Sarfate.
The Hawks scored 660 runs last season, so there were no questions about their offense coming into 2014, but that didn’t stop the team from adding Korean slugger Lee Dae-ho from Orix. The infielder fit right in and was hitting .282 with six homers and 19 RBIs through his first 47 games with the team.
The Hawks went on a free-agent tour de force over the offseason that would make the Yomiuri Giants proud. Except that Softbank minimized some of the risk, by targeting players who came with established track records in Japan instead of just signing the shiniest former MLB player on the market. Though Lee is somewhat of an exception being only in his third season in Japan.
Softbank wants to win and wants to win now. Some of the winter overhaul was a case of change for change’s sake — heads had to roll after lofty preseason expectations devolved into a down year — but there’s no arguing with the results to this point.
The new Hawks are getting it done early on and the returning core of players, some of whom are holdovers from the 2011 Japan Series team, are also playing well.
The Hawks were picked by many to win the pennant and began Monday 2½ games behind the surprising Orix Buffaloes with more than half the season still in front of them.
The pressure might be on manager Koji Akiyama to deliver something this season, and the new tools he has at his disposal might just be enough to get the job done.