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Overuse could be a factor in Asao’s drop in efficiency this season


Staff Writer

Chunichi Dragons reliever Takuya Asao gave up an earned run against the Tokyo Yakult Swallows during the eighth inning of Thursday’s game at Nagoya Dome.

After allowing four all of last season, Asao has given up four earned runs — five overall — this year.

Asao has been solid for the Dragons thus far, but hasn’t been the dominant presence he was last season, when he struck out 100 batters, allowed no home runs and posted a 0.41 ERA over 87⅓ innings en route to winning the Central League MVP Award.

Compared to last season, any knocks in the armor are going to stand out. That he’s having a slightly tougher time this year might just be natural regression after such a statistically productive 2011 campaign. After all, he allowed 15 earned runs and had a 1.68 ERA in 2010.

Even so, it’s worth paying attention to how much he’s used this season. The Dragons have been getting their money’s worth out of the 27-year-old right-hander, and fatigue could become a factor, though not to a debilitating point, sooner or later.

Entering Friday’s games, Asao led Japan with 19 appearances and had thrown 18 innings. That’s pretty much the natural course of things for a player who is among the most hardworking relievers in Japan.

He only made 67 appearances in 2009, but threw a hefty 113⅓ innings that season. Compare that with Hanshin Tigers reliever Tomoyuki Kubota, who only threw 108 when he pitched in a NPB-record 90 games in 2007.

Tigers closer Kyuji Fujikawa is the only other pitcher to make at least 80 appearances in a season, which he did in 2005, and he threw just 92⅓ frames.

Asao hasn’t slowed down much in succeeding years.

He threw 80⅓ innings in 72 games during the 2010 season and an extra 11⅓ in eight postseason appearances. In 2011 Asao threw 87⅓ innings in 79 regular-season games before racking up 9⅔ innings in nine postseason contests.

Asao is the Dragons’ bridge to closer Hitoki Iwase, who has been rather suspect himself this year, and generally the person they call on when things are tense late in games.

It’s possible, however, to dip into the well too often, and Asao’s workload bears watching.

Going . . . going . . . gone: Texas Rangers star Josh Hamilton slugged his way into the history books against the Baltimore Orioles on Tuesday, becoming the 16th MLB player to hit four home runs in a single game.

Shortly after Hamilton was done laying waste to Orioles pitching, Brian Waters of Fukuoka asked via Twitter, “Any NPB 4-homer games?”

So far, there have been five. Yoshiyuki Iwamoto of the Shochiku Robins was the first to do it, staging a personal home run derby against the Hanshin Tigers on August 1, 1951. Yomiuri Giants legend Sadaharu Oh matched him in 1964, homering four times in four at-bats against the Tigers on May 3 of that season.

Former Nippon Ham Fighters player Tony Solaita was the first Pacific League player to hit four home runs in one game, doing so in 1980, and another Fighters star, Nigel Wilson, joined him in the record books in 1997.

Former Yakult Swallows great Atsuya Furuta is the most recent member of the club, achieving the feat against the Hiroshima Carp in 2003.

Like Hamilton, Iwamoto also mixed in a double during his historic game and ended up with 18 total bases, a Japanese baseball record that still stands.

Civil War: Central League fans take cover, interleague play begins May 16 and NPB’s midseason competition has been dominated by the Pacific League since its inception in 2005.

The Pa. League has finished with the better overall record each year with the exception of 2007, when the CL went 70-67-7. Overall, PL teams are 586-534-32 during interleague play, including a 159-116-12 mark in the last two seasons combined.

PL clubs have won every interleague title, with the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks leading the way with three (2008, ’09, and ’11), followed by the Chiba Lotte Marines (’05, ’06) the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters (’07) and the Orix Buffaloes (’10).

Counting the days: Kei Igawa’s start with the Orix Buffaloes on Wednesday was his first in Japan in 2,032 days. Igawa, who left after 3⅔ with a thigh injury, is back in NPB after five failed years in the U.S.