For Hanshin Tigers pitcher Tsuyoshi Shimoyanagi, the last two seasons have been more or less average.

The cagey veteran, who was 10-8 last season and 12-11 in 2006, posted double-digit wins in each of those years but was a long way away from regaining the form he displayed during his stellar 2005 campaign when he went 15-3 with a 2.99 ERA.

Coincidentally, that was the last season that the Tigers won the Central League pennant. So it should come as no surprise that with Shimoyanagi back to looking like his old self, the Tigers are off to a fast start and in first place.

Shimoyanagi has been among the upper echelon of CL pitchers this year, going 5-0 with a 1.88 ERA through seven starts.

Conversely, the Tigers are 26-12-1 through Thursday, with a .684 winning percentage, the highest in either league, and are 3 1/2 games ahead of the second place Chunichi Dragons and 7 1/2 in front of third-place Tokyo Yakult.

At 40, Shimoyanagi probably won’t be racking up too many complete games, although he went the distance against the Hiroshima Carp on April 16, but with JFK (relievers Jeff Williams, Tomoyuki Kubota and closer Kyuji Fujikawa) waiting in the bullpen he doesn’t have to, which should relieve some of the strain on his arm in the latter stages of the season and possibly the postseason.

While Shimoyanagi is off to a fast start, he said he would like to put a halt to his habit of giving up the first run of the game when he pitches, something he has done in five of his seven starts this season.

“Every time I give up the first run I feel sorry for everybody,” Shimoyanagi said after again yielding the contest’s first run in the Tigers’ 4-2 win over the Carp on Wednesday.

Bouncing back: On Tuesday, Chiba Lotte Marines manager Bobby Valentine said that the Marines were going to get a big game out of Hiroyuki Kobayashi in his next start. Kobayashi had lost all four of his previous starts and had given up 17 earned runs during that period.

Yet there he was at Tokyo Dome on Wednesday making his skipper look like a genius by going pitch for pitch with Hokkaido Nippon Ham ace Yu Darvish.

“Pitching against Darvish is a unique opportunity,” Kobayashi told reporters. “So I did not want to lose.”

Kobayashi (1-5) gave up a run in the second inning but had one of his best outings of the year by striking out five over nine innings.

Unfortunately, Darvish (5-1) was just as good, striking out eight over eight innings while also allowing a single run, and the pitching duel ended with both starters leaving with a no-decision.

Still it was a good day for a pitcher that hasn’t won since March 28 and was desperately in need of a good outing.

“I got some confidence back,” Kobayashi said.

Know when to hold them: Hokkaido Nippon Ham pitcher Hisashi Takeda worked two scoreless innings of relief on Tuesday against Chiba Lotte, a game the Fighters won 4-3 in 11 innings, was credited with a hold and became the third NPB pitcher, and first from the Pacific League, to reach 100 hold points in a career. Takeda has 84 career holds.

Hanshin’s Jeff Williams (115) and Kyuji Fujikawa (100) are the other two pitchers with at least 100 hold points.

A hold point is given when a middle reliever comes in and holds a lead.

“Both guys are great pitchers, so I’m glad,” Takeda said about joining the exclusive club.

How the other half lives: The Seibu Lions have imposed their will on opposing Pacific League teams this season en route to building 28-14-1 record and a six-game advantage at the top of the standings. They get to see how they stack up against the CL next week when interleague play begins.

Hisanobu Watanabe’s men will be tested early with a pair of home series against the Tokyo Yakult Swallows and Yomiuri Giants from May 21-24, before traveling to Koshien to take on the CL-leading Hanshin Tigers on May 25 in what could turn out to be a Japan Series preview.

Among other intriguing matchups during the first week of interleague action is a rematch of last season’s Japan Series when the Chunichi Dragons, currently second in the CL, will face second-place Nippon Ham in a two-game series beginning on May 23 in Sapporo, before returning to Nagoya Dome to host the third-place Fukuoka Softbank Hawks on May 25.

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