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Slugging Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters ace Shohei Otani returned to the bullpen on Thursday as he works toward a return to the starting rotation.

Otani threw before his team’s 2-0 home defeat to the Seibu Lions, in which he went 0-for-4 in the No. 3 hole as the Fighters’ designated hitter.

The 22-year-old right-hander has pitched just once in relief since he left a start on July 10 with a blister on the middle finger of his pitching hand. He will throw another bullpen during the Fighters’ series against Rakuten starting on Friday. At the earliest, Otani could start in next week’s series with the Orix Buffaloes, which begins on Tuesday.

A left-handed hitter, Otani is batting .358 with 16 home runs, 45 runs scored, 43 RBIs and a hefty .464 on-base percentage. On the mound, he is 8-4 with a 2.02 ERA in 17 games. He has struck out 140 batters in 116 innings.

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