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Nippon Ham’s Yoshikawa off to resurgent start

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When Yu Darvish left for the major leagues after the 2011 season, the prevailing thought was the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters’ pitching staff would be a rudderless ship.

Then, improbably, left-hander Mitsuo Yoshikawa stepped up to fill the void. The Fighters hardly missed Darvish in 2012, with Yoshikawa finishing 14-5 with a 1.71 ERA in 25 appearances. He helped lead the team to an appearance in the Japan Series and was named the Pacific League MVP after the season.

That Yoshikawa hasn’t been seen around Sapporo since then. He was 10-19 in 39 appearances over the ensuing two seasons, putting up an 3.80 ERA. Injuries played a role in his decline, but the lack of production prior to his big year made that 2012 season seem akin to found money.

Yoshikawa didn’t turn the clock all the way back on Friday night in Chiba, but he won another game in a season that’s begun on a high note. He threw eight innings against the Lotte Marines in the victory, allowing three runs and striking out three.

“I really wanted to get this win because the team is in such good shape,” he was quoted as saying, referring to the Fighters’ perch atop the Pacific League standings.

The victory was the unbeaten Yoshikawa’s fourth this season and already one more than his total from 2014. Primarily a fastball-slider pitcher, Yoshikawa has a 2.14 ERA in 33⅔ innings.

The Fighters already have a clear-cut No. 1, Shohei Otani who is 5-0 with an NPB-best 0.80 ERA, but it helps to have more than one good arm. The club’s rotation isn’t particularly deep, so Yoshikawa’s early resurgence is a welcome sign. As it’s often said, there’s no such thing as too much pitching.

Yoshikawa’s strikeouts are down compared to a few seasons ago, so he may go as the Fighters’ fielders go to some extent, but he’s playing well and, just as he did two years ago, is once again giving the Fighters exactly what they need.

Hearing footsteps

The Yomiuri Giants announced their signing of infielder Juan Francisco, a hard-slugging native of the Dominican Republic who hit 16 home runs for the Toronto Blue Jays last season, on Tuesday, on April 21.

At the time, third baseman Shuichi Murata looked like a prime candidate to lose his spot in the lineup to the newcomer. On the day of the signing, Murata was batting .235 with one home run.

Murata, however, stepped his game up with Francisco on the way. He entered Saturday’s contest against the Hanshin Tigers having hit .375 with a pair of home runs from April 21-30. That bumped his average up to .272 and might have made it hard for manager Tatsunori Hara to remove him from the lineup.

O’Malley honored

Former Los Angeles Dodgers president Peter O’Malley has been announced as a recipient of the “The Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Neck Ribbon,” bestowed by the Japanese government, according to a news release by Historic Dodgertown on April 28.

O’Malley has had a long relationship with Japan, most famously signing pitcher Hideo Nomo in 1995, which helped light the match for the movement of players from Japan to the U.S. He also accompanied the Dodgers on a few of their trips to Japan, first arriving in the country with his parents and sister during the Brooklyn Dodgers’ tour of 1956.

In 2013, the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame featured a special exhibition entitled, “Baseball in Japan and the O’Malley Family: A Lasting Friendship,” with O’Malley on hand for the ribbon cutting.

“I am extremely humbled and grateful for this honor,” O’Malley was quoted as saying in the release. “The 1956 trip introduced me to the people of Japan and they made a lasting impact on me. I saw first-hand fan enthusiasm throughout the country, their appreciation of baseball and warm welcome to the Dodger team. Consequently, I was fortunate to establish lifetime friendships through the common language of baseball and I’ve enjoyed bringing people together from the two countries.”

Harry H. Horinouchi, the Consulate General of Japan in Los Angeles, will oversee the conferment ceremony later this year.