This year marks the 30th anniversary of the first Central League championship won by the Hiroshima Toyo Carp. It was in 1975 when the “Aka-Heru” (Red Helmets) played in their first Japan Series.

Led by current manager Koji Yamamoto (then the team’s cleanup hitter and graceful center fielder) and ironman Sachio Kinugasa, the Carp surprised almost everyone with that initial pennant victory. (They lost the Series to the Hankyu Braves.)

Now, here we are in 2005, and the predictors have projected Yamamoto’s Carp to finish in fifth place (again) or last. But, hold it. Hiroshima got off to a great start by sweeping the Yomiuri Giants in three straight games at Tokyo Dome on the opening weekend of the current season, and there may be more talent on this team, spiced with a few helpings of hustle and desire, than you might think.

Yamamoto did some player position shuffling during spring training and the exhibition season, and the moves clearly paid off in those games against the Giants.

Specifically, Greg LaRocca who split the 2004 season playing first base and second, was moved to third; 39-year-old veteran Kenjiro Nomura has taken over at first after playing third a year ago, and American lefty pitcher John Bale, the Carp’s leading winner last season as a starter, is now the team’s closer.

LaRocca is in his second year with the Carp after hitting 40 home runs, driving in 101 and batting .328, second best in the Central League in 2004. He made the all-star team and, because of his overall performance, Yamamoto appointed LaRocca to the role of cleanup hitter this year.

He responded with an RBI double to get the Carp going against Giants ace Koji Uehara, then hit a game-tying homer in the ninth inning on opening night. Unfortunately, LaRocca fouled four pitches off his leg and foot, then came down with a pulled hamstring while scoring a run the next night. He went on the disabled list but should be back soon in that No. 4 slot in Yamamoto’s lineup.

Nomura, meanwhile, seems to be trying to make the most of what may be his last season as an active player. He went into the year needing just 55 hits to reach career No. 2,000 and gain entrance to the Meikyukai, an exclusive society of batters who achieved 2,000 or more hits and pitchers with 200 or more victories in their careers. He wasted no time in beginning to whittle away at that 55 total, banging out seven hits in the Giants series.

Bale has accepted the challenge of the closer’s role with gusto, though he says it came as a surprise when he got the news of his new job. “It was on the first day of spring camp,” he said, when his interpreter relayed the message from Yamamoto and pitching coach Sohachi Aniya that he would be the man they turn to when the games were on the line.

“It came as a shock,” Bale confided. After all, he posted a record of 11-10 in 2004, his first year in Japan, and he went to spring training mentally prepared to assume his place in the starting rotation once again. But, after the “shock” wore off and he had time to think about it, Bale said OK. “If that’s what you want me to do, I’m with you.”

He has experience as a closer, with Louisville, the AAA farm team of the Cincinnati Reds, in 2003. Also, he said, “My pro career has been split about half-and-half as a starter and out of the bullpen,” the latter in various roles as a one-point reliever, middle-inning man, set-upper or closer. He wasted no time getting used to his new work assignment in Japan.

After Carp ace starter Hiroki Kuroda threw a complete game win against the Giants on opening night, Yamamoto called on Bale to hold off the Giants as Hiroshima took a one-run lead into the bottom of the ninth inning of the next two games. The southpaw picked up his first two saves “Eddie Gaillard style,” named after the former Chunichi Dragons and Yokohama BayStars closer famous (infamous?) for putting two or three runners on base before shutting the door and chalking up the save.

There was no such thing as a one-two-three inning with Gaillard, and the joke was the beer vendors paid him off to keep the game going a while longer so they could sell a few more cups.

In both of his appearances at Tokyo Dome, Bale put the potential tying and winning runs on base before getting the final outs with the help of his defense, as fans took their final sips of suds and Yamamoto’s heart skipped a beat.

Eddie Gaillard, wherever he is, would have been proud.

Another guy to watch is new U.S. pitcher Mike Romano who was 13-5 last season with Atlanta’s farm club at Richmond. Romano was the winner of the finale of that Giants series, having come into the game with Hiroshima down by a run but becoming the pitcher of record when third baseman Takahiro Arai, filling in for LaRocca, slammed a come-from-behind two-run homer in the top of the ninth to turn the tables.

That was Arai’s second two-run blast of the night and made Yamamoto seem like a genius in selecting the reserve player for the starting assignment. A manager’s intuition often plays a big part in a seemingly mediocre team rising to pennant contention, and this was an example of that.

Arai is another one out to prove he can play if given a chance. In 2003, he was selected as the Carp’s cleanup hitter after slugger Tomoaki Kanemoto left Hiroshima for the Hanshin Tigers as a free agent. But Arai, perhaps bothered by the pressure, never appeared comfortable in the role and lost his confidence.

It remains to be seen how far the Carp can go, but LaRocca told reporters on Opening Day: “I think we will surprise a lot of people. I don’t know if we can win the pennant but definitely think we can finish in the ‘A Class’ (top three) this season.”

We’ll see if it will be a happy anniversary in Hiroshima.

Friends and Fans: The 2005 edition of my Japan Pro Baseball Fan Handbook & Media Guide is now available. It is the complete English-language guide to Japanese baseball, with team rosters, schedules, stadium diagrams, ticket prices, foreign player profiles, photos and statistics. You can order a copy directly from me by sending 1,000 yen in cash, Japanese postage stamps or postal check “kawase,” along with your name and address to: Wayne Graczyk, 1-12-18 Kichijoji Higashi-cho, Musashino-shi, Tokyo-to 180-0002. Thanks.

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