CHIBA - Considered one of the favorites to win the Pacific League, the Orix Buffaloes have been through the wringer this spring.
In the months since manager Hiroshi Moriwaki’s men finished within a hair of last year’s PL pennant, Orix was Japan’s most active club in the offseason, but the Buffaloes stumbled out of the gate to start the season. On April 15, Orix was 2-14 with one tie, 9½ games out and in last place with PL batting champ Yoshio Itoi hitting .200.
“Neither the offense or the defense was consistent,” head coach Junichi Fukura told Kyodo News on Tuesday at QVC Marine Field just before the team extended their only win streak of the season to four games with a 12-inning victory over the Chiba Lotte Marines.
Orix is still without ace Chihiro Kaneko, whose right shoulder was cleaned out in November, and the casualty count has increased since Opening Day.
Closer Yoshihisa Hirano, setup man Tatsuya Sato and workhorse middle reliever Motoki Higa are all out.
On the offensive side, newly acquired slugger Tony Blanco was deactivated with knee trouble shortly after Opening Day, and speedy utility man Esteban German soon followed.
Many of the position players who were healthy did not hit, including free agent signings Eichi Koyano and Hiroyuki Nakajima, and returning slugger Takahiro Okada, who looked resurgent in the spring.
When the Buffaloes arrived in Chiba, Okada and batting coach Shinichi Sato had both been relegated to the minors, while Nakajima was out with a bad hamstring — pushing Takuya Hara, a career .230 hitter with no power, into the lineup.
On the other hand, Itoi has begun swinging as well as he had last year, and foreigners Francisco Caraballo and reliever Alessandro Maestri have been playing at a high level.
“(Itoi) has really raised his game,” Fukura said. “When Itoi hits, we’re going to get better across the board. In the early games, Itoi was too awful. Too be honest, I’ve never been through anything like this.”
The Buffaloes had been not playing as badly as their record suggested, but lost three tight games to open the season.
“That kind of got us down a little bit, losing those close games,” said right-hander Brandon Dickson, who was pressed into duty to start Opening Day in Kaneko’s place. “You think your team is playing pretty well coming out of spring and losing those three tough games, kind of got us in the wrong mindset.”
Pitching coach Ikuo Takayama said Kaneko should soon resume throwing, but that the bullpen crisis makes the work of the starters harder.
“None of our regular back-of-the-bullpen guys are without injury,” Takayama said. “If you’re a starter you have to be thinking it’s essential to go one more inning, and it’s easy to put pressure on yourself that way.”
Dickson, who bounced back from a seven-walk nightmare in Sendai on April 10 to throw a complete game victory last Saturday, said he never considered the bullpen culling an issue.
“All those guys are up here for a reason,” he said. “Everybody has a bad game, too. My example is Sendai. That was just a bad game for me. All those guys are really good. I trust every one of them to come in behind me.
“It’s tough losing some really good guys. We’ve got really good guys who can back them up. The issue is for them being confident, too. There are a lot of young guys, and they haven’t got the experience of guys like Hirano. Once they get out there and have a few good games, and get that little bit of confidence. It shouldn’t be an issue.”
During their current streak, the bullpen has stepped up, allowing two runs over 13⅓ innings, including five scoreless frames in Tuesday’s 5-2 victory.
“The good thing is that a lot of that stuff happened early,” Dickson said. “We’ve got a lot of time to make up for it. It’s not that big of an issue, because there’s so much baseball left. I know we’re going to play better, and we have, recently. It’s just a matter of time before guys start playing better.”