The Orix Buffaloes are in their first Pacific League pennant race in six seasons and thoroughly enjoying the experience.
After their entire weekend series against the last-place Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles was washed out, the Buffaloes entered Wednesday’s game against the Seibu Lions trailing the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks by 4½ games. Any thoughts that the Buffaloes might be tightening up under pressure are washed away by watching them warm up.
Veteran center fielder Tomotaka Sakaguchi, one of a few players remaining from Orix’s last playoff season in 2008, was shouting his head off as the Buffaloes warmed up at Seibu Dome in Saitama Prefecture.
Sakaguchi admitted to Kyodo News that he was one of the ringleaders in creating a display that would look more appropriate at a local festival than in the sometimes uptight atmosphere of a Japanese pregame practice.
“We play to win, but sometimes losses pile up. Regardless, you always want to be loose before the game,” said the 30-year-old Sakaguchi, who had his breakout season in 2008 but due to injuries has been relegated to a backup role this year.
“(The warm-up) is the only time when the pitchers and position players are all together and it’s a great opportunity to establish good team atmosphere.
“The veterans shout and joke and that establishes a good environment for the younger players. By shouting like that, I feel my own spirits rising, so it’s good for me, too.”
Orix finished fifth last season, with the PL’s best pitching but the league’s worst offense. Some key additions to the pitching staff have helped manager Hiroshi Moriwaki’s team retain its mound dominance, while the offense has improved significantly despite failing to sign big hitters Lee Dae-ho and Aarom Baldiris.
Yoshio Itoi, who came aboard last year in a preseason trade, is having an MVP-caliber season, leading the PL in doubles, stolen bases, batting average and on-base percentage. Wily Mo Pena, discarded by Softbank last winter, is leading the league in home runs and slugging percentage.
Third baseman Esteban German, who came over from Seibu, has added speed, while three youngsters, 21-year-old outfielder Shunta Goto, catcher Hikaru Ito (25) and shortstop Ryoichi Adachi (26), are making an impact.
“I think we’ve surprised everybody, the players, the city of Osaka,” said Pena, who said the difference was youth and togetherness.
“Everybody in Japan now knows what Orix is all about. We’ve played good so far and we have a great group of young talent, that’s the best thing.
“It (the team) has good synergies, having everyone together. It’s like a family. Everybody is trying to pick everybody up. As soon as we step on the field, we’re all playing hard.”
The Orix organization has long teemed with top talent, something that was rarely reflected in the standings. This season, however, the Buffaloes got off to a hot start and this weekend they will go head-to-head with the Hawks, who seized first place in a three-game sweep toward the end of July.
“For a long time, both the players themselves and outsiders knew this club was filled with amazing players,” Sakaguchi said. “Although a lot of the members have changed as well as the manager, we won game after game at the start of the season.
“We have a tough fight ahead of us. While our games were postponed, they (the Hawks) widened their lead. I think from here on, we’re going to be faced with tougher situations.
“About half our young players have yet to play on a strong team. I think it will be OK if those guys can just ride the momentum. On the other hand, we have some older players who’ve played on strong teams, and on other clubs, and they can impart their experience to the younger guys about how they competed when they had their backs to the wall.”
Sakaguchi said Moriwaki, in his second season as skipper after being passed over for that job with Softbank, has been good at keeping things simple.
“From the first, he’s preached preparation, be prepared before the game, stay prepared during the game and after that just do as well as you can on the field,” Sakaguchi said. “He doesn’t talk too much about what you should do in every different situation or get too complicated. Rather, he creates a good atmosphere in which to play ball.”