Baseball / Japanese Baseball

Carp defend Central League title with power at plate

Kyodo

The Hiroshima Carp became just the second team in the history of the Central League to win three straight pennants on Wednesday, when they beat the Tokyo Yakult Swallows 10-0.

Hiroshima’s ninth CL pennant hunt began with the Carp reminding the league of their offensive credentials, scoring 26 runs over four straight wins. Although they have not been in first place from Day 1, the Carp have never trailed the league leader by as much as a game, and since April 22 have never trailed at all.

“It was a long season,” Carp manager Koichi Ogata said. “We had some tough series early on, but we have some really strong players. On top of that, a number of young players came up and made big contributions.”

The Carp will now look to reach the Japan Series for the first time in two years, having lost the CL Climax Series final stage last year.

“We have achieved the first of our goals, winning the pennant,” Ogata told the fans at Mazda Stadium after the pennant-clinching win. “But that is not our final goal. Our final objective is becoming No. 1 in Japan.”

In their fourth season under Ogata, the Carp’s pennant run was built on power hitting, speed and average pitching and defense.

Although Ogata’s offense is probably not quite as potent as it was a year ago, relative to the rest of the league, Hiroshima hitters get on base more often than any other team in the league and hit for much more power than anyone else.

The offense revolves around center fielder Yoshihiro Maru. Although the club’s 29-year-old No. 3 hitter has missed 18 games with injury, last year’s league MVP could surpass Hall of Famer Hiromitsu Ochiai’s record .487 on-base percentage. Maru has already set career highs with 36 home runs and 121 walks, and will likely do the same in batting average.

The biggest question about him seems to be whether award voters will be impressed enough to select him as the league’s best player for the second straight year. If they do, he’ll be Japan’s first repeat winner since Alex Ramirez won with the Yomiuri Giants in 2008 and 2009.

Seiya Suzuki, who had been on track to win the 2017 MVP until he was sidelined in August, also missed playing time at the start of the season. The 24-year-old still ranks as Japan’s top right fielder.

With third baseman Ryoma Nishikawa having a breakout season, catcher Tsubasa Aizawa having a career year at the plate, and a superb platoon combination at first base with left-handed-hitting Ryuhei Matsuyama and right-handed-hitting Xavier Batista, the Carp have no offensive weaknesses.

The pitching staff has been more reliable than extraordinary, although right-hander Daichi Osera has an excellent chance to win the Sawamura Award. If he does, he will be the third Carp to win the award in four years, following current Los Angeles Dodgers right-hander Kenta Maeda in 2015 and lefty Kris Johnson in 2016.

Johnson, along with right-handers Yusuke Nomura and Allen Kuri, has been steady in the starting rotation, logging innings and keeping games close enough for the offense and bullpen to make a difference.