It took Yokohama BayStars pitcher Shoichi Ino five starts before he won his first game in 2013. The rookie then bounced in and out of the rotation, and it wasn’t until September that the right-hander took a game into at least the seventh inning for the first time. He posted only five wins and had to win three of his last four starts just to get there.

What a difference a new year makes.

Ino already has seven wins this season, tying him with Yomiuri Giants pitcher Tomoyuki Sugano and the Hiroshima Carp’s Brian Bullington for the most in the Central League. He’s both pitching better and putting up better results for Yokohama.

Ino took his fair share of lumps last year, but some of it was bad luck and worse fielding behind him. He’s been more fortunate this year, sitting among the wins leaders despite a 3.66 ERA, (slightly high when compared to the top pitchers) and 4.13 fielding independent pitching average.

He’s getting plenty of run support, with Yokohama scoring nearly five runs per game in his starts. The BayStars scored one run in each of the pitcher’s two losses, and Ino walked off the mound with a 5-3 lead against the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks on May 29, only for the bullpen to cough up the lead. That’s the only time Ino has finished outside the decision in his first 10 starts.

Ino hasn’t been perfect, but he’s protected leads, if just barely, and is one of the few bright spots for the last-place BayStars.

He had the best month of his career in May, going 4-0 with a 2.50 ERA to win the CL Monthly MVP Award for pitchers for the first time in his career.

“I’m happy because I didn’t seriously think I would get the monthly MVP award,” Ino said Friday. “I want to say thank you to my teammates, the staff and everyone, because I could not have gotten this on my own.”

Speed demon: Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters pitcher Shohei Otani set a career best by hitting 160 kph on the radar gun against Yoshihiro Maru during the Fighters’ 6-2 win over the Hiroshima Carp on Wednesday night.

That made Otani the fifth pitcher to reach 160 or better in a NPB game, joining former Yokohama BayStars and Yomiuri Giants pitcher Marc Kroon, current Giants closer Scott Mathieson, and Yoshinori Sato and Lim Chang-yong, who both did it while playing for the Tokyo Yakult Swallows.

Kroon, who hit 160 or better nine times (though four came in All-Star games), reached 162 against the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks’ Nobuhiro Matsuda on June 1, 2008, and that pitch stands as the fastest ever in an NPB game.

Sato holds the record among Japanese players, hitting 161 against the Yokohama BayStars’ Terrmel Sledge on Aug. 26, 2010.

Somber goodbye: Baseball lost one of its great figures earlier in the week when Don Zimmer passed away at the age of 83.

“I hired him as a coach, and he became like a family member to me. He has certainly been a terrific credit to the game. The game was his life. And his passing is going to create a void in my life and my wife Ali’s. We loved him. The game of baseball lost a special person tonight. He was a good man,” Major League Baseball Executive Vice President Joe Torre said in a statement released by the league. Zimmer was one of Torre’s coaches with the New York Yankees from 1996-2003.

Zimmer’s career in baseball stretched across six decades. While he spent the vast majority of it in the U.S., Zimmer had a few ties to Japan as well.

One included his visit to Japan in 1956 as part of the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Goodwill Tour alongside baseball legend Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, Pee Wee Reese and many other Dodger luminaries.

Zimmer later played in Japan as a member of the Toei Flyers in 1966. Decades later, in 1990, he managed a team of MLB All-Stars on a tour of Japan.

Zimmer was still in New York when Hideki Matsui arrived from the Yomiuri Giants in 2003, and his time in the Tampa Bay Rays organization (2004-2014) overlapped with that of Akinori Iwamura (2007-2009). He was also briefly reunited with Matsui in 2012, when the Japanese slugger signed with the club.

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