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Eagles soar into race for final playoff spot

by Jason Coskrey

Staff Writer

The gauntlet the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles faced the past 11 games, could’ve all-but ended their season.

Instead, it might have been just the push they needed.

Once in fifth place and all but left for dead in the playoff race with nine consecutive games against the top two teams in Japanese baseball looming, the Eagles have gone on a run no one saw coming. A streak included a recent seven-game win streak through Saturday.

“We also had a seven-game losing streak,” manager Senichi Hoshino told reporters Saturday. “So this cancels that out.”

Rakuten took the field Aug. 16 at 40-50-4, four games behind the third-place Orix Buffaloes. After a series against the last-place Seibu Lions, the Eagles were scheduled to travel to Fukuoka to face the first-place Softbank Hawks, then Sapporo for a series with the second-place Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters.

If that wasn’t enough, three more games against the Hawks were on tap when they returned home on Friday.

Instead of sinking in the standings, the Eagles turned their season around with an 8-3-1 mark over that stretch. More impressively, after dropping their first game against the Hawks, Rakuten won seven straight, holding opponents to two or fewer runs in each contest.

Pitcher Masahiro Tanaka was his usual dominating self in a pair of wins during the stretch, but the performance of rookie Takahiro Shiomi came out of nowhere.

Shiomi faced the Hawks on Aug. 21, allowing a pair of runs over five innings in a victory. He faced Japan’s top team again Friday, on four days’ rest and went 6⅓ shutout innings in yet another win.

“Physically, I thought I could go on four days’ rest,” Shiomi said during his hero interview after that second game. “We had won five games in a row and I didn’t want to winning streak to stop, so I just went out there and did my best.”

The team’s recent play has propelled the Eagles to third in the standings, giving Rakuten a slight leg up in a three-team race for the final playoff spot.

Rarified air: Yomiuri Giants star Alex Ramirez slugged his way into the record books on Wednesday, taking Hanshin Tigers hurler Atsushi Nomi deep for his 350th career home run.

Ramirez is the 26th player, and the third foreign player, to reach the mark.

Chunichi Dragons manager Hiromitsu Ochiai’s playing days are over, though he is one of the aforementioned 26, but that didn’t stop him from reaching a milestone of his own.

The skipper won his 600th game in the dugout on Thursday, becoming the 22nd manager to reach the milestone.

Mound supremacy: Through 105 games, the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks have shut out their opponents 20 times, the most by any team since the 1989 Yomiuri Giants.

Ten of the clean sheets have been thrown by a single pitcher, with group affairs making up the other half. Seven Softbank pitchers have thrown at least one shutout this season, with Toshiya Sugiuchi leading the way with three followed by D.J. Houlton, who has tossed a pair.

Not good: Chiba Lotte Marines announced that speedster Takashi Ogino had another procedure on his injured right knee last week. His rehab time may take from three to four weeks, making his return this year unlikely.

Ogino appeared in just 23 games this season and had moved from the outfield to shortstop in hopes of replacing the departed Tsuyoshi Nishioka.

He only played in 43 contests last year, as an injury to the same knee ended his promising rookie campaign prematurely.