The Chunichi Dragons have had some rough beginnings this year, but as their pitching staff rounds into form, Hiromitsu Ochiai’s team is setting itself up to make some noise in the Central League pennant race.

The Dragons have been one of Japanese baseball’s hottest teams recently, winning 11 out of their last 14 games to climb within 5 1/2 games of the front-running Yomiuri Giants following Wednesday night’s games.

Tony Blanco and reigning CL Monthly MVP Kazuhiro Wada have led the charge at the plate lately, but the Dragons’ pitchers should be credited for keeping the Nagoya club in games.

Yudai Kawai, who picked up his first Monthly MVP award in June, hasn’t been spectacular all season but has excelled at giving the club a chance to win. Kawai is 8-0 with a 2.97 ERA in 11 starts for the Dragons this season.

While Kawai has been good, Kazuki Yoshimi has established himself has the Dragons’ top threat on the mound. Yoshimi leads the Central League with a 1.69 ERA and is 8-3 in 14 starts.

Yoshimi is 4-1 over his last six starts with the lone loss coming to the Tohoku Rakuten Eagles in interleague play. Yoshimi also had a no-decision during that span, striking out six in 7 2/3 shutout innings against the Eagles.

Now a four-year pro, the 24-year-old is building upon an impressive 2008 campaign which saw him finish 10-3 with a 3.23 ERA.

The Dragons’ staff also gets a real boost by the re-mergence of Kenta Asakura, who’s essentially been missing in action over the past year. Asakura is just 5-3 in 13 starts, but is fourth in the CL with a 2.90 ERA.

Asakura has pitched into the seventh inning in his last three starts, allowing two earned runs in each, and looks to be well on track to rounding into form after being derailed by injuries.

Ochai also has Chen Wei-yin to call upon now that the Taiwanese hurler has recovered from an earlier injury. Chen made his first start in over a month on July 3, and allowed three runs over six innings against the Yomiuri Giants but did not factor into the decision.

Oops: Hokkaido Nippon Ham fans would be forgiven for having had a case of mistaken identity during the Fighters’ game against the Seibu Lions in Tokorozawa, Saitama Prefecture, on Tuesday.

That’s because Fighters pitcher Keisaku Itokazu took to the mound not in his usual No. 20 jersey but in Brian Sweeney’s No. 42. Itokazu forgot his uniform prior to the Fighters’ departure from Sapporo and it was announced to the crowd prior to the game that Itokazu would don Sweeney’s for the night.

Not much of Sweeney’s veteran guile rubbed off on the 25-year-old, however, as he gave up six runs — five earned — in a 6-4 loss.

Call on him in a pinch: Yokohama BayStars outfielder Dan Johnson got a pinch-hit single with two outs and a runner on second in the ninth inning of a 2-2 game against the Yomiuri Giants on Wednesday night.

The BayStars had tied the game earlier in the inning and were looking to upset the CL’s best team at Tokyo Dome.

With a .206 average, Johnson seems like a strange choice to be called upon in such a crucial situation — until you take a closer look.

Johnson is 5-for-12 this season as a pinch hitter, batting a .417 clip when the team his in need of an extra bat.

His single moved the runner to third but the BayStars would eventually lose the game 3-2 after a walk-off home run by Hayato Sakamoto in the bottom of the ninth.

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