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BayStars defy sorry reputation with strong start to season

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The surprising Yokohama BayStars are 26-16 after 42 games and owners of both the best record in Japan and a three-game cushion over the Yomiuri Giants atop the Central League. The BayStars have also won seven consecutive series, which they haven’t done since 1964, and each victory makes more fans wonder if the team can beat the other CL clubs to the finish line in the pennant race for the first time since 1998.

The BayStars look good, very good. Even so, given the team’s moribund existence over the past decade-plus, the natural question is whether or not enough season has passed to determine if Yokohama really is this good. The season is still less than two months old, so probably not. That doesn’t mean the BayStars aren’t this good, just that’s it’s too early to fully buy in.

What can be said with conviction is that the BayStars look much better than last year’s version. They really do look pretty good, and with the way the rest of the CL is playing, who’s to say pretty good won’t be enough.

Some of Yokohama’s biggest improvements have come offensively. Last season, the BayStars finished last in the CL in runs scored, batting average, and on-base percentage, and fourth in home runs, despite a hitter-friendly home park. That put a lot of pressure on their pitchers, mostly in that same hitter-friendly park, to be far above-average every night, which they weren’t.

Early in 2015, the BayStars’ .261 average is second-best in the CL and they’ve scored the most runs (161) in the league. Yokohama’s pitchers are performing at about last year’s levels (though a little better with a 3.27 ERA), the offense is just giving them more rope to work with and that’s turning into wins.

Individually, Yoshitomo Tsutsugo looks like he’s in store for a big year. He’s hitting .321 with seven homers and 32 RBIs, while Takayuki Kajitani is batting .315 with a pair of homers, 18 RBIs and 11 stolen bases. Aarom Baldiris and newcomer Jose Lopez, who has seven homers, both already have more than 20 RBIs on the season.

The ‘Stars scored a lot of runs in 2013, so it’s possible 2014 was just an off year. If that’s the case, and the team continues to be at least average on the mound, offense could keep Yokohama in the thick of the hunt for the pennant.

Of course, there are still 101 games left, and anything can happen. Perhaps the rest of the CL begins to play better as the weather warms up and puts more pressure on a Yokohama team not used to front-running. Eternally effervescent manager Kiyoshi Nakahata will keep spirits high no matter what, but being the hunted comes with a different kind of pressure.

How will the BayStars keep their wits about them when an inevitable bad stretch occurs? For a team so well-versed in losing, it would be easy to panic and inadvertently dig an even deeper hole by trying to do too much. Sure, Yokohama is off to a hot start, but past years are littered with teams who sprinted ahead of the pack early, only to fade during the latter stages of the marathon.

When the BayStars have played well in recent seasons, there was always the question of which string of losses would be the string of losses, the bad run that would send them tumbling down the cliff and out of contention for a Climax Series spot.

Right now, these BayStars look like they could make a real push for the CL summit, and maybe even get there. But it’s a long climb to the top, and a lot of challenges lay between here and the promised land.