Hanshin Tigers third baseman Howard Battle began the 2000 Japan pro baseball season on a 15-game winning streak, and team manager Katsuya Nomura is probably wondering why he sent the former Atlanta Braves player to the farm team following the spring exhibition schedule.

Nomura, known for making quick (often negative) judgments about new foreign players, apparently decided he didn’t like Battle as a player. Press comments indicated Nomura saw his new infielder as overweight, a poor fielder and a boom-or-bust hitter who might hit some home runs but would also strike out too often.

Thus, Battle began the regular season on the Tigers of the Western League. The WL Tigers burst into life by winning their first 10 games, while the parent Hanshin club got off to a poor start in the Central League. Then Nomura promoted Battle to the varsity April 14, and the player responded with two hits in a win over defending Central League champions the Chunichi Dragons.

After a rainout, Battle homered in the next game — and Hanshin won again. Then came a three-game series in Tokyo against the Yomiuri Giants, in which battlin’ Battle played a key role in the Tigers’ (surprising to many) sweep of the Kyojin. I watched all three of those Tokyo Dome games, talked with Battle prior to each one, observed his play closely and, I’m tellin’ ya, there’s nothing wrong with Howard Battle.

A three-sport star in high school out of Biloxi, Miss., Battle is a superb athlete who played baseball (as a shortstop and pitcher in his prep school days), basketball and football. “We had a small school, and there weren’t that many members on the football team,” he said of his versatility. “I played quarterback on offense, several positions on defense, and I was even the holder for point-after-touchdown place kicks.”

Drafted as an outfielder by the Toronto Blue Jays in the fourth round in 1990, Battle was soon converted to a third baseman and has since passed through the organizations of the Phillies, Dodgers, White Sox and Braves, with big league time at Toronto, Philadelphia and Atlanta. He’s a hard worker who does everything asked of him, and Battle didn’t bat an eye when Nomura sent him a bunt sign in last Wednesday’s game against the Giants, despite the fact he was batting fifth and is considered to be a slugger. He laid down a perfect sacrifice that led to both scores in the Tigers’ 2-1 win.

“I actually have experience there,” said Battle. “In my very first major league game in 1995, (Toronto manager Cito) Gaston had me sacrifice. I have no problem with it.” As for his being undefeated in 15 games, Battle smiles and says, “I guess I’m the team’s good luck charm.”

Following that sweep on the road of their archrivals, a happy Nomura must be acquiring a fondness for his gaikokujin third baseman. Battle is batting .294, playing more than adequate defense, and his team has won every game in which he’s played, at least through Thursday. What is there not to like?

Meanwhile, the most puzzling performance of the young season so far is the (temporary, I’m sure) futility of the defending Central League champions, the Chunichi Dragons.

Manager Senichi Hoshino’s Nagoya club, which got off to an 11-0 start in 1999, was 4-12 through games of April 21 this season. They’ve hit only five home runs (four players on other teams have more than that) and the club’s composite batting average is a dismal .219.

Foreign sluggers Leo Gomez (two homers, .164 average) and Dave “Dingo” Nilsson (one HR, .170) have yet to get started, and the only real great game for the Dragons was a 20-hit output on April 7 when American pitcher Mel Bunch threw a no-hitter at Yokohama.

Yomiuri Giants first baseman Domingo Martinez says the abundance of left-handed pitchers is eating up the mostly lefthanded Chunichi batting lineup. The Drags have five lefty hitters in second baseman Kazuyoshi Tatsunami, shortstop Kosuke Fukudome, and all three outfielders: Dingo , Koichi Sekikawa and Kazuki Inoue.

Two of the best Pacific League southpaws in recent years are now in the Central circuit: Kimiyasu Kudo of the Giants and Nobuyuki Hoshino of Hanshin. The two top strikeout pitchers in the CL are lefties Darrell May of Yomiuri and Kazuhisa Ishii of the Yakult Swallows. The No. 1 rookie so far is Giants portsider Hisanori Takahashi. The Dragons are seeing them all.

Last Thursday, it was Hiroshima Carp lefty Ken Takahashi who shut out Chunichi 3-0, allowing only three hits and handing Bun-chan his first loss. Even with that, Mel has 75 percent of the team’s victories.

But, make no mistake about it, left-handers or not, the Dragons are a quality team loaded with talent. Any day now they are going to catch fire and will be just as hot as they have been cold. Those hits, those home runs, are in those bats. Pity the pitchers on the poor opposing team when Chunichi breaks out and gets it going.

Note: The Baseball Bullet-In will appear again next Sunday, April 30, as Marty Kuehnert’s “On the Keen Edge” will take a break due to Marty’s travel and work schedule. His column will then run on consecutive weeks, May 7 and 14, and we’ll get back on the alternating weekly schedule after that.

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