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Marines need solutions after problematic start

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The Chiba Lotte Marines are playing very, very badly right now. Almost unbelievably so, and that’s really putting it rather mildly.

They’re off to one of the worst starts in recent memory in Japanese baseball. What’s more, that isn’t even the worst part of the beginning to the Marines’ 2017 season.

The worst part is, right now, even this early, there doesn’t seem to be any sort of proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. Which means it could be a long summer in Chiba.

So far, this hasn’t been good season to be a Marines fan. The team is 9-26-1 and currently in the midst of its third five-game losing streak of a season that’s not yet two months old.

“We won once this week (on May 9),” manager Tsutomu Ito told Sports Nippon on Sunday. “It feels like a long time ago.”

The team did show signs of life in Sunday’s 4-2 loss to the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, leaving Ito looking at the glass as half-full.

“We lost, but we hit well,” he told Sankei Sports. “I want to erase this bad turn of events.”

Offensively, the Marines are the worst team in baseball. In terms of pitching . . . the Marines are the worst team in baseball. Ito is a solid manager who has turned water into wine in the past, but this year the cupboard looks bereft of the ingredients needed to cook up another miracle.

The losses began before the first pitch of the season, when Lotte lost slugger Alfredo Despaigne, its lone real offensive threat, in free agency. The team then failed to sign infielder Mauro Gomez, who had been with the Hanshin Tigers, after reports of an initial agreement.

The players the Marines did bring in, Matt Duffy and Jimmy Paredes, have had a rocky start in Japan. Duffy is hitting .232 with four home runs (two of which came Saturday, perhaps a sign he’s heating up) while Paredes has only played 16 games and has a .151 average and no homers. Rubbing salt in that particular wound is the fact Despaigne, now with the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, currently has nine homers, only eight less than the Marines have as a team.

Big first basemen Seiya Inoue has also fizzled, hitting .220 with nine RBIs in 26 games, and no one else has contributed much either.

Lotte is hitting an almost unbelievable .188 as a team after 36 games. For reference’s sake, Japan’s next-lowest team batting average is the Fighters’ .240. Daichi Suzuki is the team’s only qualified batter and is hitting .272 and tied for the team lead with four home runs. Among players with at least 40 at-bats, the next-highest average is Duffy’s .232.

On the mound, Lotte has a 4.76 team ERA that’s easily the worst in Japan, with the Hiroshima Carp, 11th out of the 12 teams, at 3.97. Ace Hideaki Wakui allowed six home runs in 4⅓ innings against the Fighters on Friday, while the second-best pitcher, Ayumu Ishikawa, was banished to the farm with a 7.62 ERA after only three starts.

The Marines have been so snakebitten that they’ve still actually outplayed their Pythagorean expectation (a formula created by famed sabermetric guru Bill James that uses run data to guess what a team’s winning percentage should be), which says Lotte should have a .207 winning percentage rather than the .257 the club actually has.

The question is, where does Ito turn?

Offensively, Kazuya Fukuura and Tadahito Iguchi are aging vets, not longterm solutions, while sluggers Despaigne and Shoitsu Omatsu are swinging their bats for other teams.

Perhaps Ito can turn to his backups, which he’s already begun to do, or give a guy or two from the farm team some run at the top level and hope the new blood provides a spark. Duffy hit three home runs last week and getting him going would be a good first step.

On the mound, all the team can do is hope Wakui’s bad day was just that, and that Ishikawa puts himself back together. They have a nice-looking rookie in Chihaya Sasaki and also Yuki Karakawa, both of whom also need to pull their weight.

The bright side is that it’s only May and there is a lot of season left. The Marines are still a pro team and it’s hard to imagine things remaining this bad over the course of the rest of the season.

The scary part (especially after how they’ve looked this week), however, is that it’s getting easier by the day to at least entertain that thought.