Hiroshima Carp manager Marty Brown says he expects his team to be much improved this season and does not feel any pressure to get the club into the Central League Climax Series.
Brown will be leading the team as its skipper for the fourth season, and he’s optimistic the Carp can make the playoffs in 2009.
“It’s the same every year,” Brown said on a cold, rainy day at the Carp’s training camp in Nichinan, Miyazaki Prefecture, last month. “I don’t look at it as pressure. Whatever happens, happens. I can’t really control it. I get the team prepared as best we can and, if we come up short, I’ll still feel good about what I’ve done.”
He took over what was a last-place club in the six-team Central League in 2005, finished fifth in 2006 and 2007, and had Hiroshima in contention for third place and a playoff berth until the last week of the 2008 season.
“I think the team has gotten better since I’ve been here,” he noted. “I can’t take all the credit, though. I think we’ve had some decent draft picks with (Yuki) Saito and (Junpei) Shinoda, who gave us a big jump last year, along with Kenta Maeda.”
He was talking about a trio of promising young pitchers in southpaws Saito (3-1 with a 3.34 ERA at the end of last season), Shinoda (3-4, 4.31 in 2008) and right-hander Maeda (9-2 with a 3.20 ERA). Saito is 22 years old, Shinoda 24 and young Maeda turns 21 on April 11.
All are expected to be in Brown’s starting rotation along with league strikeout leader Colby Lewis (15-8, 2.68 with 183 Ks) and Kan Otake (9-13, 3.84), whose record could be much better with a little more luck and run support.
The relief corps looks strong too, highlighted by closer Katsuhiro Nagakawa (4-1, 1.77 and 38 saves), and the best catcher is Yoshiyuki Ishihara (.265 average, nine home runs, 50 RBIs), a Samurai Japan World Baseball Classic national team member.
On offense, Brown is also optimistic about the team’s potential.
“Guys such as (second baseman Akihiro) Higashide and (first baseman and cleanup hitter Kenta) Kurihara have gotten better too,” said the manager.
Table-setter Higashide hit .310 last year, and Kurihara, a substitute member of the Samurai championship team, belted 23 home runs, had 103 RBIs and batted .332.
The Carp signed 39-year-old, 20-year veteran shortstop Takuro Ishii from the Yokohama BayStars in the offseason as a free agent, and Brown says Ishii will provide leadership.
Popular right fielder and five-year Japan veteran Alex Ochoa will not be back, and the starting outfield appears to be set with speedsters Soichiro Amaya (.263) and Masato Akmatsu (.257) in left and center, and former Central League batting champion Shigenobu Shima (.309) in right.
Talking about his foreign players, Brown said, “Scott Seabol looks great and appears in better shape than he was all of last year. He worked out hard during the winter (and) played a lot of racquetball and basketball. I look for him to do a lot better this year.”
Seabol’s 2008 numbers as the Carp third baseman were 15 homers, 53 RBIs and .273.
Joining Lewis on the pitching staff are returnees Mike Schultz and Ben Kozlowski and newcomer Scott Dohmann.
Evaluating them, Brown said, “Schultz is built as a starter. He really wants to start, but I think he’s too valuable (as a reliever) to take him out of the bullpen. Kozlowski (a situational lefty reliever) is looking good, too.
“We also have Dohmann (acquired from Tampa Bay), and I think he’s going to be OK. He’s not a real big guy, but he throws hard, and he’s very athletic. He has a good slider and throws a forkball as well. He’ll pitch late,” predicted Brown, apparently figuring Dohmann, a righty, will work as a setup man for Nagakawa.
“We’re fully groomed, but somebody’s got to be in the minor league,” Brown said.
There are five Americans on the team, and only four may be registered at a time on the varsity roster.
Asked what happened with the 37-year-old Ochoa, who batted .306 with 15 homers and 71 RBIs in 142 games for the Carp last season, Brown said, “Nothing happened. We just got to the point where we had to increase our pitching depth, so we had to eliminate one foreign position player, and we need a guy at third base more than we do in the outfield.
“Alex was solid for us the last year and a half, but could we afford to carry him and not have an extra pitcher?
“Plus he would have been making $800,000, which, if he hit 40 home runs like Tyrone Woods, that’s one thing, but he started to go down a little. He is not as fast as he once was, and his arm strength started to go down, though he still has a good arm. He is still a good player and would have taken a job had it been offered, but he was ready to move on.”
Now we’ll see if the Carp are ready to move on to playoff contention as they open the 2009 season on April 3, against the defending Central League champion Yomiuri Giants at Tokyo Dome.
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Finally this week, author Robert Whiting reports an updated version of his popular book, “You Gotta Have Wa,” was released last week on the 20th anniversary of the best-selling original. On Tuesday, the English version went on sale in the U.S. and the Japanese language edition in Japan.
Whiting said the English version should be on sale in bookstores in Japan some time in April. In the meantime, it can be ordered online from Amazon.com.
Contact Wayne Graczyk at: wayne@JapanBall.com
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