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Swallows pitchers off to hot start on mound this year

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The Tokyo Yakult Swallows’ pitchers were unlikely candidates to flirt with history, the good kind at least, when the season began March 27. Not when they were coming off a 2014 in which they posted the worst ERA in Japan among starters, relievers, and, unsurprisingly, overall as a team.

Yet from opening night through April 11, a span of 14 games, Swallows pitchers didn’t allow more than three runs in a single game. That’s an NPB record. Actually, the Birds gave up three runs just once, March 31, against the Hanshin Tigers. So for the last 10 games of that stretch, Yakult’s hurlers allowed just two or fewer runs in each game.

That streak ground to a halt during Sunday’s 6-1 loss to the Yomiuri Giants. It was never going to last over 143 games, and now that it’s over, the natural questions are whether the Swallows are really this good and if they can keep it going or not.

“It’s all about feel,” said closer Tony Barnette, who has been a rock in the bullpen with four saves, a hold and no runs allowed in six appearances. “It’s all about making sure you’re ready to compete that day. Not doing too much or doing too little. That’s the gray area in baseball, what’s too much, what’s too little? As professionals, we gotta be able to figure that out as we go.

“We’re going to have bad days. It’s gonna happen. But we’ve gotta be able to let those go and just move on and worry about what’s in front of us that day.”

The Swallows have a few new pieces, such as Yoshihisa Naruse and Logan Ondrusek to name two, who have been good early, and the returning cast has also shown a renewed focus. Having most everyone healthy, mainly ace Yasuhiro Ogawa, also helps.

It must also be encouraging to see players such as Taichi Ishiyama and reliever Orlando Roman, among others, off to good starts. It hasn’t only been the guys on the field pitching in either.

“It also comes down to what the coaching staff has been doing behind the scenes,” Barnette said. “(Katsunori) Nomura, that guy puts in every ounce of his day in the video room just going over hitters left and right. (Shingo) Takatsu and (Tomohito) Ito too . . . the attention to detail from those guys has been phenomenal for us. I think that’s helping us tremendously.”

Working in tandem with the pitching staff has been Yuhei Nakamura and the rest of the Yakult catchers, who spend much of their time poring over reams of information about the opposing team hoping to seek out an advantage.

“That’s helping us out a lot, by them knowing what they want to do behind the plate and us knowing what we want to do,” Barnette said.

“Pitcher, catcher and coach, we’ve all been on the same page. The attention to detail and the hard work guys put in during the spring is starting to pay off.”

It’s too early to tell how much better the Swallows are this season, if at all. At the same time, just because good results have come early doesn’t mean things can’t remain that way. Everything, after all, has it’s starting point.

Without the luxury of a crystal ball through which to peer into the future, all the Swallows pitchers can be judged by are their results right now.

Through 15 games Yakult has a 1.67 team ERA, easily the best in Japan. The Swallows starters have combined for a 1.93 ERA in 93⅓ innings and their relievers have allowed just five runs in 41⅔ frames.

That’s too much to ask for through an entire season, but if these Swallows are even a little better than they were last season, their lineup, once it gets rolling, may have enough firepower to make up the difference.

“Our offense is gonna pick up,” Barnette said. “We’ve got good hitters, there’s no doubt about it. We had the best hitting team in the league last year. Without (Lastings) Milledge and (Wladimir) Balentien (both injured) right now, you can tell run producing is a little bit down. Even so, once (Tetsuto) Yamada heats up; Yuhei (Takai) is hot; Shingo (Kawabata), you can’t argue with a guy hitting .418 (on Saturday); and Boo (Kazuhiro Hatakeyama), he’s going to run into some and put some in the stands.

“We’ve just gotta keep our offense there. If we keep giving our offense an opportunity to either go ahead or stay ahead, good things are in the future for us.”