Injuries, departed players present challenges for Hawks early in season


The Fukuoka Softbank Hawks had hoped to absorb the loss of three top pitchers and their starting shortstop to free agency and maintain their high standards, but it appears the defending Japan Series champions may be sinking into mediocrity as the 2012 season approaches its one-third mark.

Through games of Wednesday, the Hawks are treading water, playing just two games over the .500 mark in the Pacific League pennant race with a record of 22-20 and two ties. Moreover, they are a B-Class team, having fallen into fourth place behind the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles.

The Hawks and their fans knew it would be tough to replace pitchers D.J. Houlton, Toshiya Sugiuchi and Tsuyoshi Wada. Houlton and Sugiuchi bolted to the Yomiuri Giants, while Wada headed for the major leagues and the Baltimore Orioles, although he is out for the season after undergoing elbow surgery.

The trio combined for 43 victories in 2011, and the Hawks this year tried to make up some of that by signing ex-major league All-Star right-hander Brad Penny, but that proved to be a disaster. Penny asked for and got his release after pitching just one game in the cold of Sendai in early April and is now back in the U.S., having signed a minor league contract with the San Francisco Giants.

The fourth starter from last year, 14-game winning righty Tadashi Settsu, has emerged as the ace of the staff, compiling a record of 5-1 with a 1.66 ERA, but he and lefty Hiroki Yamada (5-3, 2.63) have been the only consistent members of the rotation.
Adding to the pitching staff woes of manager Koji Akiyama is the fact closer Takahiro Mahara is probably out for the year with an injury, and his replacement, Brian Falkenborg, went on the disabled list last week with a sore shoulder.

Softbank also lost the spark plug of its infield, shortstop and leadoff man Munenori Kawasaki, to the Seattle Mariners, and his former double-play partner, second baseman Yuichi Honda, though still with the Hawks, has missed playing time recently with a neck injury. All in all, the talent level of the Fukuoka club has been severely reduced, and it is showing in the team’s lackluster performance.

Add to all that the aging of stars Nobuhiko Matsunaka (no longer playing every day) and Hiroki Kokubo (deactivated on Friday due to a herniated disc), and it is easy to see the Hawks are nowhere near the championship-caliber unit of a year ago.

Two bright spots this season, though, have been the performances of third baseman Nobuhiro Matsuda and outfielder/DH Wily Mo Pena. Matsuda, through Thursday’s games, was batting .339, second best in the Pacific League, and was tied for the league lead with 31 RBIs. He has emerged as a genuine star.

Pena has adjusted well to life in Japan on and off the diamond. Expected to be a “boom-or-bust” hitter who would slam tape-measure home runs but strike out a lot and average no better than .250, Pena has shown he can do more.

Through May 24, he was leading the PL in homers with nine, runs scored with 25 and — yes — strikeouts with 44. However, he was hitting .283 and had 29 RBIs. Prior to a game against Yomiuri in Tokyo last weekend, Pena said, “I love playing in Japan and I love Fukuoka.” It shows in his actions and demeanor.

In talking about Penny, Pena said, “I knew he was not going to stay. I talked to him during spring training, and he suggested we quit and go home. I told him there was no way I was leaving.”

Having played in the majors with five teams and gone through seven MLB organizations, Pena has had enough of Triple-A.

“I was in spring camp last year with the Arizona Diamondbacks,” he said. “I had a minor league contract with an invitation to major league camp. But, I hit five home runs and batted .350 during the exhibition season and thought I had a great chance at making the (big league) club. Then they cut me.”

He now says everything about Japanese baseball is better than North American minor league ball — the money, the ball parks, the fans, the media attention … everything.

Also on the positive side for Fukuoka, shortstop Kenji Akashi has stepped in as an adequate replacement for Kawasaki, posting a .311 average and stealing 14 bases so far. Outfielder Seiichi Uchikawa, the 2011 Pa League batting champion and MVP, is showing his usual consistency with a .310 batting mark.

The Hawks are said to be looking for an American pitcher to replace Penny, a 119-game winner over 11 seasons in the majors, and team spokesman Itaru Kobayashi acknowledged his club is on the lookout for a new guy.

The Nikkan Sports paper suggested one hurler who might be available is lefty Scott Kazmir, currently listed as a free agent. Kazmir was with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays when they came to Japan to open the 2004 season against the New York Yankees at Tokyo Dome.

However, if Kazmir has not been playing, it would seem unlikely the Hawks would consider him, and his final stats from the 2011 season were horrendous. In five starts at Triple-A Salt Lake in the Los Angeles Angels organization, he was 0-5 with a 17.02 ERA.

There is still plenty of time, of course, for the Hawks to recover and make the playoffs, and the key would seem to be the timely return of Honda and Falkenborg and the signing of another foreign pitcher who can join the starting rotation and make the often-difficult mid-season adjustment to Japanese baseball.

Despite the team’s slump, Kobayashi said, “our attendance is up over last year,” and he expressed confidence the Hawks will be there again in the PL Climax Series in October. We shall see.

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