A few words of praise this week for the 2007 performance of the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles.

The third-year Pacific League expansion team made great progress this year, and manager Katsuya Nomura and his staff deserve credit for the improvement which might see the Eagles soar as high as fourth place before the current season ends.

There were many skeptics critical of the decision to hire Nomura in 2005 for the 2006 campaign, and I must admit I was one.

Nomura’s last managerial stint prior to his joining the Eagles, was with the Hanshin Tigers where his three seasons (1999-2001) all resulted in last-place finishes in the Central League.

I would have bet Rakuten could not escape the PL basement as long as Nomura was at the helm, but he’s done an admirable job in guiding the club to 61 victories so far this season through games of Sept. 22, with 11 games remaining.

The Eagles, under Nomura, won 47 times in 2006. In its inaugural season of 2005, the team achieved only 38 victories under then-manager Yasushi Tao.

This year’s Rakuten club could have been even better if its pitching staff had come through as was hoped.

Nomura was counting on a big comeback by right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma and consistent performances from two other righties, Yasuhiro Ichiba and Li En-yu.

Iwakuma was 15-2 for the Kintetsu Buffaloes in 2004 but has had arm trouble almost since joining the Eagles and has not been able to regain his old form.

Ichiba, a highly touted rookie in 2005, is slow in maturing.

Li, from Taiwan and a 17-game winner with the Macoto Cobras in his home country in 2006, has been injured and pitched infrequently this season.

Still, there have been bright spots.

Eighteen-year-old rookie pitcher Masahiro Tanaka has won 10 games, and soon-to-be-39-year-old first baseman-designated hitter Takeshi Yamasaki surprised everyone with a 40-home run season. He’s got 42 with 104 RBIs and will probably lead the PL in both those categories, now that Tuffy Rhodes (with 42 homers) of the Orix Buffaloes has shut it down for the year because of injury.

Rakuten’s American utility player Rick Short has been the leading hitter in the Pacific division most of the year, and he may win the batting title.

Fullcast Stadium Miyagi, the Eagles’ home park in Sendai, remains a fun place to watch a game, and the crowds have been good. Imagine what the attendances would be like if the team were in playoff contention.

Marty Kuehnert is still there, greeting fans in the grandstand and outside the park where there is entertainment or some type of attraction prior to every game.

In my opinion, Fullcast has the best food concessions of any stadium in Japan, and the Eagles Shop sells a variety of attractive souvenirs with American-sized T-shirts and jerseys in the team’s maroon-and-gold color scheme.

Speaking of Americans, I attended an Eagles-Buffaloes clash in Sendai earlier this month along with that tour group from the U.S. I wrote about last week, and several visitors remarked during the game, “This is a great ballpark.”

Some day the Eagles may be a great team too. They may yet finish last this year but, for now, let’s just tip our caps to the Rakuten people for a job well done and a respectable performance this season.

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Yakult Swallows manager Atsuya Furuta has officially announced he will step down, and the team has designated Furuta’s intai jiai, or retirement game, for Sunday, Oct. 7, when the Swallows will play the Hiroshima Carp at Jingu Stadium in Tokyo.

Furuta will be re-activated as a player and make his final appearance in the batter’s box, and it is likely the Carp pitcher on the mound facing him will be veteran Shinji Sasaoka who is also calling it quits.

We should know soon who will replace Furuta and outgoing Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters skipper Trey Hillman.

Unlike the major leagues, where managers are fired or retired and the affected team begins an oftentimes lengthy search for a new guy, Japanese teams move swiftly to see a new field boss is in place as soon as a given season ends — if not before.

There are three factors dictating a sense of urgency here and the appointment of the new manager right away: 1) Draft meetings in autumn. 2) Fall camp. 3) The printing of next year’s team calendar.

The Japanese draft of high school players will take place on Oct. 3, to be followed on Nov. 19 by the selection of college kids and industrial leaguers.

Also, the 12 Central and Pacific League clubs annually open autumn camps, a mini-version of spring training, to keep the players occupied from about mid-October to mid-November.

It helps if next year’s manager is there to participate with the draft picks and conduct the off-season workouts, so he knows what he’s got — or what he needs — for the following season.

As for the calendar, it has to go on sale each year in early December, so fans can buy them and club officials have them to hand out as yearend gifts to sponsors and team supporters.

With that in mind, the photos, design and layout must be turned in to a printer in November, and the manager’s photo is obviously an important part of the document.

So, there is no time to begin interviewing managerial candidates now, and it is likely teams changing managers have already made their choices.

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Finally this week, there will be no “Baseball Bullet-In” next Sunday. We will take off a week for the fifth Sunday of the month. See you again on Oct. 7.

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Contact Wayne Graczyk at: wayne@JapanBall.com

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