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Finally, Carp looking like real deal

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The Hiroshima Carp, it seems, have arrived. After a long stretch of bad years and recent seasons of being a few pieces short of a whole, the Carp are finally in the thick of a pennant race again.

The team has the best record in NPB at 73-44-2 and enters this week with an 11-game lead over the second-place Yomiuri Giants in the Central League. The Carp’s magic number to clinch the pennant, which would be their first since 1991, is currently at 13.

Hiroshima hasn’t had a season like this in a while. A glut of B-class finishes ended in 2013, when the club finished third despite going 69-72-3 for its first A-Class season since 1997. The next year saw the Carp finish third again at 74-68-2, their first winning season since 1996. Even after the departure of manager Kenjiro Nomura that offseason, the improving Carp were the trendy pick to capture the CL flag in 2015. The team wilted under the spotlight, finishing in fourth place.

This year, the Carp have put it all together. Even without former ace Kenta Maeda, who jetted off to southern California to pitch for the Dodgers, they’ve become the team many expected to see a year earlier. More importantly the team’s rise, as slow as it was, seems mostly genuine.

Hiroshima has both the offense and pitching to compete with any team in Japan. Interestingly enough, that’s a big departure from the 1991 squad that will be referenced more and more as the team moves closer to the pennant.

That squad, led by Koji Yamamoto, was mostly dependent on a pitching staff that featured MVP Shinji Sasaoka and a pair of future Hall of Famers in Manabu Kitabeppu and closer Yutaka Ono. The Carp pitchers posted the lowest ERA in the CL that season. Conversely, the offense was fourth in average and fifth in runs scored.

This year’s team won’t hurt for offense. The Carp are flexible offensively, able to outslug opponents or consign them to death by a thousand cuts. The Carp lead NPB in team average (.274), runs scored (591) home runs (128) and stolen bases (103).

Players such as Kosuke Tanaka, Ryosuke Kikuchi and Yoshihiro Maru are adept at getting on base and mashers like Takahiro Arai, Seiya Suzuki and Brad Eldred have made opposing pitchers pay.

Hiroshima also has pitching, namely a three-headed monster in starters Kris Johnson, Hiroki Kuroda and Yusuke Nomura. They can also turn to reliever Jay Jackson, who has a 1.70 ERA and 29 holds in 57 appearances and a solid closer in Shota Nakazaki.

The Carp still have a long way to go this season, but the way they’re playing suggests they won’t be easily knocked off the path to the pennant. They’re 14-4 since Aug. 7 and currently riding a wave of good vibrations.

The last time the Carp hosted postseason baseball was in 1991 at old Hiroshima Stadium, when the team beat the Seibu Lions in Game 5 of the Japan Series. If they can remain on course over the next few weeks, the Climax Series will come to Hiroshima’s Mazda Stadium for the first time and the Carp will truly have claimed a seat at the big-boy table.

The last 25 years have been rough, but the current crop of players are poised to write their own history as the Carp close in on the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.