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Kikuchi, Sugano locked in duel for Sawamura Award

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Despite the amount of ink spilled trying to determine whether Seibu Lions pitcher Yusei Kikuchi was actually guilty of the illegal two-stage pitching motion he was cited for on Thursday night, it’s more important to note the way he handled the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles.

Kikuchi held the Pacific League’s second-place team to no runs and two hits while striking out seven in a shutout victory in which he both lived up to his billing as the team ace and bolstered his candidacy for the Sawamura Award.

At 12-5 with a 1.93 ERA and 165 strikeouts in 144⅔ innings, Kikuchi might be the favorite for the award at this point in most other seasons.

But there is another challenger.

The Yomiuri Giants’ Tomoyuki Sugano has been just as good, with a 13-5 record, 1.87 ERA and 145 strikeouts in 149⅓ frames.

So while there is still a ways to go, the race for the Sawamura looks like a two-man affair.

On one side is Kikuchi, a fireballing lefty finally living up to lofty expectations. Major league scouts who ventured to Iwate Prefecture to scout Shohei Otani years ago already knew the way because they’d headed to the same high school, Hanamaki Higashi, to watch Kikuchi a few years prior.

His path to stardom has been a fit of starts and stops. He’s shown flashes of greatness, but hasn’t consistently harnessed the potential that nearly carried him out of Japan after high school.

This year, his seventh, he’s risen to the challenge in his first season without either Hideaki Wakui or Takayuki Kishi around to shoulder the burden of being the No. 1 pitcher. In doing so, Kikuchi has blossomed into one of Japan’s best, for this season at least.

Sugano proved himself long ago.

The Giants’ fifth-year righty was the 2014 Central League MVP and also wore the ace tag for Japan at this year’s World Baseball Classic. His ERA was 1.91 in 2015 and 2.01 last year. His career ERA is 2.25 in 846⅓ innings. This season has simply been more of the same.

So which pitcher has the edge at this juncture?

Neither is likely to hit all seven of the Sawamura Award criteria (at least 25 appearances, 10 complete games, 15 wins, a .600 winning percentage, 200 innings pitched, 150 strikeouts and a sub-2.50 ERA). These have been more suggestion than rule in recent seasons. The last pitcher to actually reach all seven, the Orix Buffaloes’ Chihiro Kaneko in 2013, didn’t even win the award.

So far, Kikuchi and Sugano have put up similar numbers. Each has made 20 starts and both have four complete games, and three shutouts, to their credit.

Sugano has a better home run rate (0.60 to 0.81) and walk rate (1.57 to 2.12) per nine innings, while Kikuchi’s NPB-best 0.88 walks plus hits per innings pitched is only a hair better than Sugano’s 0.89. According to DeltaGraphs, Kikuchi also holds a slight edge in fielding independent pitching, 2.82 to 2.89. He is also tops in Japan with a .183 opponents’ batting average, though Sugano is tied for second at .200. Kikuchi will also likely finish with a much higher strikeout total.

Looking at recent form, Sugano is in the midst of a seven-game streak (and nine of his last 10) of allowing one or fewer runs while pitching at least six innings. Kikuchi has five such games among his last 10 starts.

The former pitching greats who make up the Sawamura Award committee will have their work cut out for them if the pair continue at this pace. Then again, there is precedent for players sharing the award. The Hanshin Tigers’ Minoru Murayama and the Giants’ Tsuneo Horiuchi were each honored in 1966 (when the award was CL only), while the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks’ Kazumi Saito and Tigers pitcher Kei Igawa shared the award in 2003.

Of course with over a month remaining in the season, a disastrous start by either could decide things. Or both could falter and throw the race wide open.

It helps that they will be pitching with a lot on the line. Kikuchi’s Lions are trying to rise into at least second place in the Pacific League standings, while Sugano is trying help drag the Giants to the third spot in the Central League.

If they remain at the top of their games, each could possibly reach their team goal.

As for the big individual honor in question, that race looks like it’s going down to the last pitch.