Baseball / MLB

SANYO ALL-STAR SERIES

Ochiai’s Dragons the biggest surprise in season’s first half

by Mai Yoshikawa

Kyodo News

In a Japanese baseball season full of shocks and surprises, the Chunichi Dragons have emerged as unexpected leaders in the Central League heading into the break for what could be the final All-Star series between the Central and Pacific leagues.

With only a few additions to last year’s core roster, the Dragons have outperformed the favored Yomiuri Giants to prove that seeking remedy from within can pay off with different mind sets — and a new manager.

The Giants once again spent billions of yen on an off-season shopping spree to create a potent lineup laden with sluggers, but are sweating to stay over .500 in the league standings half way through the season.

Ironically, one of the few new faces is “bunt master” Masahiro Kawai, a veteran infielder who joined the Nagoya club on a bargain deal after spending 21 years in a Giants uniform.

Both teams opened the 2004 season under new managers.

Yomiuri tapped former ace right-hander Tsuneo Horiuchi after finishing third in the 2003 season under Tatsunori Hara.

It was Hiromitsu Ochiai, a two-time winner of Triple Crown batting titles, who took the Dragons’ helm.

Ochiai was certain his team didn’t need to spend extra money on hiring new players to lift Chunichi to its first league pennant in five years and first Japan Series championship since 1954.

In spring training, Ochiai gave every player an equal opportunity to compete for a spot on the Opening Day roster without dividing the roster for separate training camps for the top and farm teams.

He even promised that he would not trade, release or acquire a player during the regular season.

“There is not one player who is unworthy of being on this team. It’s up to each of them to show me what they’ve got. I’ll show no favoritism,” Ochiai said before the start of the season.

And his faith in his players paid off. The Dragons are entering the All-Star break as the CL leaders for the first time in five years after getting off to a relatively slow start in a tight pennant race early in the season.

Veteran infielder Kazuyoshi Tatsunami was the main driving force for the Dragons with his average hovering around .350. With runners in scoring position, he is hitting just below .500 — the best in Japanese baseball so far this season.

On the mound, right-hander Kenshin Kawakami and southpaw Masahiro Yamamoto led the Chunichi pitching staff with their earned run averages and number of wins in the league’s top 10 lists.

Ochiai laid the groundwork for his mission in such a manner in the first year of a three-year contract. By contrast, Horiuchi saw his squad torn by a spate of injuries, although the powerful Yomiuri offense has hit more than double the homers Chunichi has delivered.

Starting catcher Shinnosuke Abe, the CL home run leader early on, missed two weeks due to a hamstring injury.

But the loss of fan favorite Kazuhiro Kiyohara due to a broken hand is a heavier blow to the chase of the Dragons, given that there is no timetable for his comeback.

The consolation for the Giants is the fact that six Yomiuri players were selected to the CL team for the two-game All-Star series through fan balloting, while Chunichi had none.

The Hanshin Tigers failed to live up to expectations in the defense of the league title they won last year for the first time in 18 years, having limited their role to challenging Chunichi alongside Yomiuri ahead of the second half of the season.

Like Yomiuri, Hanshin moved in and out of first place before Chunichi ran away from the pack and padded its lead the past month.

Shinobu Fukuhara has a team-high eight wins but the other starting pitchers have failed to deliver. Among them is Kei Igawa, last year’s CL leader in ERA and wins who has had an inconsistent campaign.

In the Pacific League, the Seibu Lions and Fukuoka Daiei Hawks have shown they are in a different class in what could be the last season in the history of the league inaugurated in 1950.

Amid the news of a planned merger between the Orix BlueWave and Kintetsu Buffaloes and another pair involving two of the other four teams, the PL goes into the All-Star break after a fierce two-horse race between the Lions and the reigning Japan Series champion Daiei Hawks.

Daiei, which features four players who had more than 100 RBIs last season, continued to show off its power hitting this season and is on course to become the first team in Japanese baseball history to end the season with a team batting average of .300 or better.

Five Daiei position players, including three of the 100 RBI quartet — Kenji Jojima, Nobuhiko Matsunaka and Tadahito Iguchi — were named All-Stars as top fan picks in a reflection of the broad fan base for the Fukuoka ballclub.

After the departure of shortstop Kazuo Matsui, Seibu saw three players selected through fan votes for the PL All-Star squad.

They include relievers Shinji Mori and Kiyoshi Toyoda, who play key roles in the Lions’ solid bullpen, though Toyoda has opted not to play in the midsummer classic due to lower back pain.

The two teams are expected to slug it out for the league pennant down to the wire, but much of the attention has started to turn into a possible realignment of Japanese professional baseball as a switch to a one-league, 10-team format is closer to becoming a reality.

Despite the introduction of a playoff system to draw more fan interest, the Orix-Kintetsu merger after this season has just been given the green light by the baseball owners.

On Wednesday, Seibu owner Yoshiaki Tsutsumi said talks are under way for another merger between two PL clubs from Seibu, Daiei, the Nippon Ham Fighters and Lotte Marines.

“The Pacific League lags behind the Central League in popularity and many other aspects. The All-Star series is a good opportunity to show the superiority and existence of the Pacific League,” said Daiei manager Sadaharu Oh, the skipper of the PL team for this weekend’s All-Star games.

The two-game series will be held Saturday at Nagoya Dome and Sunday at Nagano Olympic Stadium.