At this time two years ago, the Hiroshima Carp were the toast of the Central League. They were hitting well, pitching even better and at 27-15 had the best record in the CL. It looked, early on, like the team might be on track for the type of success not seen since the halcyon days of the Aka-heru era of 1975-91, when the “Red Helmets” had 15 A-Class finishes and won six pennants and three Japan Series titles.
That was before the 2014 interleague campaign. After mostly taking a beating over 24 games against Pacific League teams, going 9-15, the shell-shocked Carp were just happy to have bounced back in time to finish third in the CL and at least reach the Climax Series.
This year gives the Carp a chance to right that wrong. After Sunday’s victory over the Yokohama BayStars, Hiroshima is 29-23-1 and ahead of the second-place Chunichi Dragons by 2½ games. It’s still early, but how Hiroshima fares against PL clubs this year could be a clue to the team’s staying power, or possible lack thereof. Plus, while the CL isn’t quite the dumpster fire it was last year (all six teams dropped under .500 at one point), there are no standout clubs, and the driver’s seat is still ripe for the taking.
The problem is, the Carp aren’t usually at their best this time of year. Hiroshima hasn’t posted a winning record in interleague play since 2009 (and only two since the format began in 2005) and is 29-37 over the past three seasons, including a 9-9 mark last year.
To be fair, this is a pretty bloody time of year for CL clubs all around. The PL holds an 865-774-53 edge overall and has won the season series in 10 out of 11 years. Individually, the Yomiuri Giants are the only CL team to win an interleague title, finishing first in 2012 and 2014. The Carp’s best finish is third in 2009 — they haven’t finished higher than sixth otherwise.
But the Carp don’t have to win interleague. The team just needs to do well enough to come out the other side in a good position in its quest for a first CL pennant since 1991.
Manager Koichi Ogata has at his disposal a team that leads Japan with 55 home runs (led by Brad Eldred’s 14). The Carp also have the highest batting average (.273) and most stolen bases (42, led by Kosuke Tanaka’s 11) in NPB. While there is room for improvement on the mound, staff ace Kris Johnson, last season’s ERA leader, is at least up to his usual tricks with a 6-3 record and 1.79 ERA.
How all that plays against PL teams, however, remains to be seen.
Hiroshima will be tested early. The team opens its interleague campaign on the road against the Chiba Lotte Marines, the PL’s second-place team, and will find the two-time defending Japan Series champion Fukuoka Softbank Hawks (NPB’s top team at 31-13-4) waiting when it returns to Hiroshima. The Carp then travel north to tangle with the third-place Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters. On the bright side, Hiroshima gets the bottom three teams, the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, Seibu Lions, and Orix Buffaloes to finish interleague play.
There have been many teams to use a strong interleague campaign as a springboard into the rest of the season, and the Carp have to try and do the same. Doing so would help them take another step toward reclaiming their past glory by exorcising their current PL demons.