Lack of offensive firepower continues to hamper Hanshin


What is wrong with the Hanshin Tigers?

Seemingly a group of players with the ability to succeed and be a pennant contender, the popular team has obviously underachieved offensively this season and is very unlikely to make postseason play while concluding an eight-game losing streak.

Playing under first-year manager Yutaka Wada, the Tigers pitching staff has provided the necessary elements for winning games, but the sluggers have been mysteriously sluggish.

The talent is there but, for whatever reason, the bats have been unproductive and, despite the fact there are six weeks remaining on the 2012 schedule, the Hanshin club and its fans need to be looking toward next season.

Sure, there have been some key injuries, most noticeably to former catcher Kenji Johjima, but other clubs have had their share of the hurts as well, and the Tigers really cannot use the loss of one key guy as an excuse.

Through games of Wednesday, all four regular starting pitchers have posted respectable ERA figures but losing records. Jason Standridge was 5-9 with a 2.90 ERA, Randy Messenger 6-9 and 3.08, Minoru Iwata 5-11 and 3.14, and Atsushi Nomi at 6-8 and 3.21.

Hanshin is mired in fifth place in the Central League standings and, if the Tigers are not careful, the Yokohama BayStars may overtake them.

As of Thursday, there was only a 3½-game difference between them.

To find Hanshin’s leading hitter by batting average this season, you need to go almost halfway down the Top 25 list of Central Leaguers where you see shortstop and team captain Takashi Toritani at No. 12, hitting .267.

Veteran outfielder Tomoaki Kanemoto is right behind at .262, but he is 44 years old and about ready to retire.

Utility man Keiichi Hirano and American outfielder Matt Murton who hit .350 and .349, respectively, just two seasons ago when Murton set a new Japanese baseball record with 214 hits for the season, are .240-something hitters this year.

As a team, Hanshin has hit only 38 home runs through Wednesday, and its leading long ball man is first baseman Craig Brazell.

He has hit eight but spent most of this month on the Western League farm team before being recalled Aug. 14, supposedly trying to find his batting stroke.

Brazz hit 47 homers himself in 2010 when Hanshin finished second with basically the same team.

There have been a few bright spots besides the starting pitchers. Reliever Kyuji Fujikawa has been his usual effective self but, with the team often behind in the score late during games, the save chances have been few and far between. He’s got 16 rescues and ranks fourth among Central League closers.

Another is infielder-outfielder Ryota Arai who, until this season, has pretty much been referred to as “Arai’s brother.” The younger (by 6½ years) sibling of veteran Hanshin infielder Takahiro Arai, Ryota came to the Tigers in a 2011 trade from the Chunichi Dragons.

He has done so well recently, the younger Arai has been put in the cleanup spot in the batting order by Wada. He’s hit seven home runs and has a batting average of .293 which would be seventh among the CL leaders, but he has way too few plate appearances to qualify for the batting title.

His brother, Takahiro, who began the season as the No. 4 hitter in the lineup after driving in 93 runs to lead the league a year ago, has only 46 RBIs this season, having hit just six homers and is batting .253.

What’s worse, the Tigers may be losing Toritani and Fujikawa to free agency during the coming off-season. Toritani could jump to another club in Japan, and Fujikawa, with nine years of service time, will be eligible for domestic or international F.A. status.

There were scouts from at least four major league clubs at Tokyo Dome on Aug. 7 to see the fire-balling right-hander pitch two scoreless innings against the Yomiuri Giants, and the general feeling is he is likely to try the MLB in 2013.

Standridge, who should have a record of about 10-4 instead of 5-9, said he can’t explain why he has not gotten the run support. “These are all great guys and great players,” he said. “I wouldn’t trade any of them.”

Murton had hoped to get his game kick-started following the All-Star break.

“I’ve been watching video of myself hitting, trying to find what I’m doing wrong; trying to find the real Matt Murton,” he said.

So far, though, it has not happened. It all seems to be a matter of every hitter in the Hanshin lineup coincidentally having the reverse of a career year at the same time and there is no easy answer.

Meanwhile, a former Tigers American star player from the 1985 Japan Series champion team was back in Japan last week.

Randy Bass, now 58, returned to play in the annual Suntory Malt’s old-timers game held this year in Sendai. Bass, a Central League Triple Crown winner in 1985 and ’86, is now an Oklahoma state senator.

He also visited Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya and other Japanese cities to promote his line of food and beverages which include beef jerky, a variety of jellies and jams and the Randy Bass Triple Crown Home Run Shot Energy Diet Support drink. He said he too is puzzled as to why his former team has lagged behind this season.

Before returning to the U.S., Bass said he is hoping his new business will take off and be successful. “If I do make a lot of money, maybe I’ll make an offer to buy the Tigers,” he said.

I think he was joking.

* * *

Contact Wayne Graczyk at: Wayne@JapanBall.com