For the past several weeks, Pacific League hitters have lived a blissful Shohei Otani-free existence. Forget the strikeouts, the 160 kph-plus fastballs and the array of knee-buckling breaking pitches. Since early July, Otani has been one of them, focused on hitting pitches instead of throwing them.
No longer. Well, more accurately, just not as much.
With the Fighters one game behind the two-time defending Pacific League champion Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks with 19 games left (SoftBank has 20), manager Hideki Kuriyama is preparing to play his trump card.
The 22-year-old Otani, arguably the most talented pitcher in Japan (perhaps in the world in his age group), will return to the mound this week against the Chiba Lotte Marines in Asahikawa, Hokkaido.
Kuriyama broke the news Sunday, telling reporters, according to Kyodo News, “I plan to send him out to the mound to start on Tuesday.”
Otani’s return is big news, but the real importance is that it allows him to shake off any rust in time for a showdown against the Hawks in Fukuoka, Sept. 21 and 22, when a lot could be at stake.
The Fighters made considerable gains in the pennant race without the services of their top pitcher. Now Nippon Ham will count on him to help push the club over the top.
Otani is 8-4 with a 2.02 ERA and 140 strikeouts in 116 innings this year. He hasn’t started since leaving the mound with a blister on the middle finger of his right hand after 6⅓ innings against the Marines on July 10. The last time he was on the mound at all was for a one-inning relief appearance against the Orix Buffaloes on July 24, when he earned his first-ever hold.
Since the All-Star break, Otani has spent most of his days in the lineup as the designated hitter with a .319 average, 10 home runs and 29 RBIs since July 16. Overall, he’s hitting .325 with 20 home runs and 56 RBIs.
Kuriyama had been keeping his star pitcher under wraps for weeks, long after the blister had dissipated, though Otani was simultaneously one of the club’s best hitters.
The Fighters, who were down by as many as 11½ games in the pennant race at one point, simply soldiered on without him on the mound. Aided by solid offensive output combined with standout, unexpected, pitching performances by Hirotoshi Takanashi and closer-turned-starter Hirotoshi Masui, among others, the team ran off a 15-game winning streak at one point.
That, coupled with a late-summer swoon by SoftBank, put a charge into what was shaping up to be a boring pennant race. The Fighters actually wrested the lead away from the Hawks, but gave it right back.
Now Kuriyama has decided it’s time to begin arranging the pieces on his chessboard.
He’s got an offense that’s playing well and a group of pitchers who are pulling their weight, with the potential of Kohei Arihara, who leads the team with 10 wins but has lost his last five starts, getting back on track.
Then there is Otani. He can only pitch so often, but he’ll still get his cuts at the plate in between.
As the season winds down, the Fighters’ two-way star is gearing up to once again become the stuff of nightmares for opposing hitters and pitchers alike.
Something that couldn’t come at a better time for the Fighters as they prepare for the final stages of the race to the finish line.