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Eagles show mettle during series with Carp

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While you never want to get too caught up in a series in early June, the results from Sendai over the weekend are well worth remembering as the season stretches onward.

Masataka Nashida’s Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles poured cold water on the red-hot Hiroshima Carp over the weekend, taking two of three in an interleague series that featured the first-place teams in the Central and Pacific Leagues.

The Carp won the opener and stretched their winning streak to six, after the Eagles were forced to change starting pitchers hours before the game because of Takahiro Shiomi suffering from a lower-back ailment. From there, it was Eagles pitcher Manabu Mima shutting down Japan’s top offense with eight innings of one-run ball on Saturday and Kazuya Fujita coming up with a tiebreaking hit in the eighth inning on Sunday, with both wins capped off by saves from Yuki Matsui. Even more impressively, Rakuten did it without ace Takahiro Norimoto ever taking the ball.

“I think the players had confidence they could win on Saturday and Sunday even though we dropped the first game,” Nashida said.

The Eagles haven’t had the smoothest of interleague campaigns, they’re 7-5, but rose to the occasion in one of the most anticipated series of the season thus far.

“It was big for us to win this series, since we’ve lost two series since we started interleague,” Fujita said.

If the Eagles meet the Carp again this year, it will be in the Japan Series. The club hasn’t flown that high since ace pitcher Masahiro Tanaka helped bring the PL pennant and Japan Series title to Tohoku in 2013.

This year’s Eagles are hoping to reach those same heights, and, right now at least, they look like contenders.

Rakuten is perched atop the PL at 37-17, 1½ games better than the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks. The team has a run differential of plus-76 and the best ERA (3.20) in the Pa. League.

The pitching of Tanaka and Norimoto made a big difference in 2013, and the team’s hurlers are doing their part this year as well. Norimoto is 8-1 with a 2.76 ERA, 1.87 fielding independent pitching and 1.11 walks plus hits per innings pitched. He’s also in the middle of a run of eight consecutive games with at least 10 strikeouts. He’s got 102 for the season and looking like a good bet to surpass 200 for the fourth straight year.

Star free-agent pickup Takayuki Kishi has also done well at 4-2 with a 2.52 ERA, but Mima has been the story of the season.

He was the surprise winner of Japan Series MVP honors for that 2013 team, but the bigger surprise has been the way he’s pitched this year. Mima has shown more feel for his pitches than in years past, and his results have been off the charts.

In 11 starts, he’s 7-1 with a 1.74 ERA (though a 2.88 FIP) and a 0.79 WHIP in 77⅔ innings. He’ll set all sorts of career highs if he keeps pitching near this level, including notching his first season with double-digit wins, something he just missed at 9-9 in 2016.

“I said that last year (about reaching 10 wins),” Mima said after Saturday’s game. “I wasn’t able to do it then, so I just want to win one game at a time without thinking about it.”

A breakout year from Mima gives Rakuten three quality pitchers in its rotation. The glaring weakness, then, is at the back end, where they have to search for more stability. Of the other two Eagles with at least six starts, Wataru Karashima (5-3) has a 4.24 ERA and Yoshinao Kamata (2-2) is at 5.93. Shiomi (1-0) has only started one game, but if healthy could be a positive addition to the mix.

Matsui meanwhile continues to thrive in the closer’s role, though he makes it interesting sometimes. He picked up his 19th and 20th saves of the year over the weekend, and is coming off 33 in 2015 and 30 last season. He’s struck out 29 batters in his 28 innings and his ERA dropped to 0.32 after another clean frame on Sunday.

“The goal is 40 saves this year,” Nashida said. “He’s already got 20 right now, so maybe instead of 40, I want him to shoot for 45 or 50.”

On the offensive side, the team has been marching to the beat set by leadoff man Eigoro Mogi, hitting .321 with 12 home runs and 37 RBIs, and No. 2 batter Carlos Peguero, who is batting .271 with 14 home runs and 43 RBIs. They’ve led the charge, and others have provided covering fire at opportune times.

Solid starting pitching, a decent (albeit wobbly) foundation of relievers and timely hitting have the Eagles looking like the real deal.

There are too many games left and the Hawks, the healthy ones anyway, are too close to say Rakuten will definitely win anything, but the Eagles look like a team that could keep flying high the rest of the way.