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The Hanshin Tigers have a reputation of winning the Central League pennant once every other decade. Their last three titles came in 1964, 1985 and 2003, and their fans surely do not want to wait until 22-something for the next championship.

They may not have to.

This season through games of May 16, Hanshin was on top of the CL standings, albeit by only a game and a half in a tight race, and you have to wonder if the pinstripers from Kansai can actually win two flags in a row.

The Tigers began the year under a cloud of uncertainty following the resignation of high-profile manager Senichi Hoshino (due to health concerns) after leading Hanshin to the 2003 CL championship and barely losing a seven-game Japan Series to the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks.

Hoshino left the club in the hands of Akinobu Okada, last year’s third base coach and the second baseman on the Tigers’ 1985 Japan Series championship team.

Besides Hoshino, a host of coaches, including batting instructors Koichi Tabuchi and Tom O’Malley and battery coach Mitsuo Tatsukawa, left the staff after doing a super two-year job.

They took over after manager Katsuya Nomura quit in November of 2001, when his wife was arrested following an income tax scandal.

In the wake of three consecutive last-place finishes (1999-2001) under the “Nomura Regime,” Hoshino and company rolled up their sleeves, went to work to rebuild the roster, won the first seven games of the 2002 season and ended the year with a fourth place standing, but with a sense of respectability and promise for 2003.

That promise turned into a runaway championship victory that saw the Tigers win last year’s pennant by a whopping 14 1/2 games, but the team’s prospects for 2004 were again put in doubt by the departure of Hoshino and Company.

With parity the word in the Central circuit this season, it is highly unlikely Hanshin will win by that many games, but they could very well achieve back-to-back titles, and much of the team’s fortune depends on the international late-inning relief corps consisting of two right-handers, Japanese native Yuya Ando and American Jerrod Riggan, and Australian lefty Jeff Williams.

Using an unusual concept, Okada rotates the three for work in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings of games, depending on the opponent team and which batters are due up in each of the game’s last three frames.

All have made appearances as the closer, set-up man and pre-set-up guy and, so far, the idea has worked well.

“It’s a unique system. I’ve never seen anything like this before,” Williams said of his manager’s handling of the twirling trio of revolving relievers.

Ando, Riggan and Williams warm the bullpen bench until the seventh inning, when the phone rings for one or two of them to get up and warm their arms.

It could be in alphabetical order one night, with Ando followed by Riggan and Williams; the next night Australia, Japan and the U.S., then right-left-right to go in order a third night.

Asked when they prefer to work, both foreigners said they would rather have the ball in the last inning.

After pitching the seventh and getting the “W” in a 7-6 win over the Yomiuri Giants on May 11, Riggan said the following day, “I would have preferred the save.”

But Ando got the “S” that night when he closed in the ninth after Williams set up in the eighth at Tokyo Dome.

His Aussie mate says, “No question I would like to be out there in the ninth,” admitting he gets more pumped up when the game is on the line.

Williams saved the 4-3 win over the Giants two nights later, pitching the last two-thirds of the ninth after Ando threw an inning and a third, while Riggan had the night off.

It works in extra innings, too. On May 15 at Koshien Stadium, Williams got a win after posting a scoreless 12th against the Hiroshima Carp, after Riggan gave up no runs in the ninth and 10th innings, and Ando did the same in the 11th.

Riggan, by the way, had been invited by Okada to join Hanshin’s starting rotation prior to the season, but the Christopher Reeve lookalike who’s learning the Japanese language said, “Kekko desu.” (No, thank you.) Okada is surely happy Riggan declined.

Meanwhile, the two foreign position players on the Tigers have had mixed performances.

First baseman George Arias is having his best season so far in five years in Japan, hitting .292 with 15 home runs and 35 RBIs.

However, first-year third baseman Mike Kinkade has had an incredible streak of bad luck and is out the lineup.

Kinkade was ejected from his first game in Japan on April 2 for arguing a called third strike, the first guy tossed out on Opening Day here in 46 years. Then he kept getting hit by pitches and at one point had more HBP (11) than hits (9).

One of the “dead balls” was a beaning by Chunichi Dragons pitcher Martin Vargas, after which Kinkade collapsed while charging the mound.

He missed 10 days while on the disabled list, then was re-activated and began to hit well but got plunked again May 11. He broke the ring finger of his left hand and is on the DL once more, out this time for four weeks.

The Tigers will have to tread water until Kinkade returns, and there will be other obstacles to face later in the summer: Williams is expected to leave the relieving to Ando and Riggan (and probably another foreign pitcher, right-hander Ramon Morel who’s currently on the farm team) when he heads for Athens to represent Australia in the Olympic Games in August.

That coincides with the annual “shi no rodo” (“road trip of death”) when the Hanshin club gives up its home Koshien Stadium to the national high school tournament for three weeks. The Tigers will be living out of their suitcases this year from Aug. 2 to 26.

For now, though, Hanshin is hanging in there, hoping to turn their “Never Never Never Surrender” catch phrase into a V-2.

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