Author Archive > Ken

Stars of Summer Koshien

» 21 August 2011 » In amateur baseball, Koshien » 4 Comments

Now that the 93rd National High School Baseball Championship, or Summer Koshien, has concluded, it’s time to take a look at the players who shined on high school baseball’s biggest stage.

As you may recall, there were many standouts from the Spring Tournament, which was won by Kanagawa Prefecture’s Tokaidai Sagami. The spring champs, however, didn’t make it into the field of 49 finalists.

Nichidai San, who represents West Tokyo (East and West are split in the tournament), came close to titles in both Spring 2010 and 2011 (finalists and semi-finalists, respectively). They were finally crowned champions on Saturday.

Sanko, as they are known, were one of only three teams in the field given the highest pre-tournament rating by all three sports dailies polled (Hochi (Yomiuri), Nikkan Sports and Sponichi). They were prohibitive favorites and are perhaps a bit over-represented represented below. That said, they lived up to the billing and did not wilt under pressure.

Here are some of this tournament’s standout individual performers:

Kentaro Yoshinaga, pitcher, Nichidai San, West Tokyo

Where would Nichidai San be without their ace pitcher? Not basking in the glory of a national championship, for sure. The right-hander started 5 out of his team’s 6 games, pitching all but 4 1/3 innings of the tournament.

Over his 49 2/3 innings, he allowed 42 hits but struck out a healthy 59 batters. He struck out at least double digits in three games, suffering only one major hiccup; a 15 hit, 8 earned run pounding at the hands of Shimane’s Kaisei. His team bailed him out with one of their patented big innings (in this case, a 6-run 6th) and the team advanced.

Yoshinaga finished with a 2.90 tournament ERA and a 1.21 WHIP, both improvements on his Spring tournament numbers.

Despite being tired and laboring at times during the final game, he was still able to pitch his team to an 11-0 win and hold opponents Kosei Gakuin to 5 hits.

Yoshinao Kamata, pitcher, Kanazawa, Ishikawa

My “pitcher to watch” from the Spring, Kamata did not disappoint. Unlike Nichidai San, his Ishikawa team was not blessed with a potent offense. He K’ed 10 in an opening game 4-0 shutout, scattering 5 hits. He repeated the strikeout total in his second start, scattering 8 hits in a 4-2 victory.

In his third start Kamata ran into a very good Narashino team from Chiba, who edged Ishikawa 2-1. In that game his fastball reached 153 KPH, his high velocity for the tournament.

The fireballer struck out 29 over 26 innings, allowing 21 hits and putting up a tidy 1.04 ERA. Unfortunately his offense only provided him with an equal 21 hits to work with.

Yujo Kitagata, pitcher, Karatsu Sho, Saga

Admittedly, Kitagata came out of nowhere for me. His school hadn’t been to Summer Koshien since 1984 and I hadn’t paid too much attention to the Saga Prefectural qualifiers.

Tied for the hardest thrower with Kamata at 153 KPH, his scouting report said he featured a slider, cut fastball, curve, and forkball. I noticed the fastball and a power slider, because he relied on them to mow down opposing batters.

Against Furukawa Kogyo, he allowed just 4 hits and struck out 13, but was wild, walking 6 batters. It added up to three earned runs on his ledger, but his team won 9-4.

They didn’t win their second round game, though, as Sakushin Gakuin beat him 3-2. He struck out 10 again, walked 3, and allowed only 1 earned run. It wasn’t good enough, but he seems to have a promising future ahead.

Shunsuke Michibata, catcher, Chiben Wakayama, Wakayama

Of the highly regarded “big name” catchers (Michibata, Kensuke Kondo and Shuto Takajo) that made it to Koshien, it is debatable whether the Chiben Wakayama backstop had the best tournament. He gets the nod because Kondo and Takajo had truncated tournaments; both their teams lost early on. Nichdai San’s Takahiro Suzuki made terrific plays in the field; I just don’t think his bat is on par with the others.

Michibata was part of a good offense that put up 23 runs in just 3 games. He went 5 for 15, having a nice 3 for 6 day in round 2.

Toshitake Yoko, third base, Nichdai San, West Tokyo

One might say that Sanko’s third sacker is a little overweight. Fortunately for the champs, his bat is also pretty hefty.

In the qualifying tournament leading up to the Koshien finals, Yokoo put up a .500/.571/.792 line over 7 games.

In the finals he went out and improved upon it. He bashed out a ridiculous .625/.690/.708 (15 for 24).

Shun Takayama, right field, Nichdai San, West Tokyo

Another guy whose bat made a huge statement in the tournament. He tattooed pitchers for a line of .500 (13 for 26) while getting on base at a .536 clip and slugging a silly .885. He hit two critical home runs, including one in the final game to dead center.

Honorable mention:

Sho Azegami, center field, Nichdai San, West Tokyo

The team captain played a stellar CF and was one of Sanko’s reliable offensive weapons (6 for 24). His slow start in the early rounds held his numbers down.

Hiroaki Saiuchi, pitcher, Seiko Gakuin, Fukushima

Struck out 16 in his opening game. 19 IP, 16 H, 30 K over tournament (2 games).

Author’s note: For even more coverage and a non-stop Nichidai San love-fest, please visit Deanna Rubin’s wonderful Marinerds, etc. site.

Continue reading...

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

A Quick Koshien Qualifying Roundup

» 19 July 2011 » In amateur baseball, Koshien » 4 Comments

It’s one of my favorite times of year. Japan’s high schools baseball teams are once again marching on the road to Summer Koshien. Here are a few items making news:

  • Nara powerhouse Tenri is out of this summer’s qualifying games due to violence within the club. The Japan Student Baseball Association handed down a two month suspension on June 14th, and their absence opens a path for Chiben Gakuen or another school to represent Nara at Koshien. Interestingly, it has been either Tenri or Chiben Gakuen representing the prefecture for 36 of the last 39 summer tournaments, while Koriyama holds the other three. Kansai Chuo is highly ranked this year; might this be their chance to make the dance for the first time ever?
  • Speaking of first-timers, congratulations to Itoman of Okinawa, the first team to punch their ticket to Nishinomiya. Itoman held on in the prefectural final to beat Chubu Shogyo, 2-1. If I’m not mistaken, they will become the geographically southernmost Japanese school to play at Koshien, though there were teams representing Taiwan in the days when the island was under Japanese rule.
  • Spring and Summer 2010 champions Konan saw their great run end in that same Okinawa qualifying bracket. The loss of their fine left handed starter Yosuke Shimabukuro to graduation was more than they could overcome.
  • Narashino, one of the stronger teams from Chiba Prefecture, has a  great marching band. While their baseball is entertaining, something special happens when their boys are batting and they fire up their instruments. You can hear an audio clip of them here. The sonic treat alone is worth tuning into their games for.
  • Yokohama, a traditional power in Kanagawa Prefecture, is looking a bit shaky these days. While they breezed through their first game with a 10-0 score, they struggled to overcome a plucky Yokohama Shogyo squad on Monday (July 18th). Tokaidai Sagami, the Spring champions and 2010 Summer Koshien runners-up to the aforementioned Konan, are looking strong again and would like their shot to win it all. Getting out of the Kanagawa qualifier, with its 186 teams, won’t be easy.
  • Typhoon Ma-on has disrupted the schedules in the southern parts of Japan. As it makes landfall during the week, expect the cancellations to spread. Let’s hope the storm passes quickly, and that everyone in the affected areas stays safe and dry.

Continue reading...

Tags: ,

News Item: Saburo Traded to Yomiuri

» 29 June 2011 » In npb » Comments Off

It has become clear within the last hour that the Chiba Lotte Marines have traded outfielder Saburo Omura to the Yomiuri Giants in exchange for outfielder Takahito Kudo and cash.

It’s quite a surprising move, considering how popular Saburo is among Lotte fans and how much of a fixture he has been in their outfield and lineup. The 35 year-old was in the midst of his 17th season with Lotte, batting .271 with 2 home runs and 9 runs driven in. He had appeared in 19 games this season.

Kudo had not made an appearance at the ichi-gun level in 2011 for Yomiuri. Prior to his two seasons with the Giants, he spent parts of three seasons with Nippon Ham. Kudo is a career .262 hitter still looking for his first home run in NPB.

Continue reading...

Tags: , , ,

The Remaking of the Hawks’ Rotation

» 10 June 2011 » In npb » Comments Off

Having just completed a four game season sweep of the Yomiuri Giants, the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks are playing unbelievably well right now. As of this date, they sit atop the Pacific League with a 32-11-3 (.744) record. They have basically buried their PL rivals (save for the Nippon Ham Fighters, who are 3 games behind in the standings) and it’s only early June.

How have they done it? With their excellent starting pitching, for the most part.

Good starting pitching has been the hallmark of the Hawks’ success over the past decade or so. But recent years haven’t been kind to former starters like Nagisa Arakaki and Kazumi Saitoh, and the Hawks have been forced to move on. Coming into 2011, they found themselves left with only Tsuyoshi Wada and Toshiya Sugiuchi as reliable names in the rotation.

Having given 19 and 20 starts last season to Kenji Otonari and Shinsuke Ogura respectively, the Hawks went in another direction this year. They moved 2009 Rookie of the Year Tadashi Settsu into the rotation full time, and it has worked splendidly. Even counting the 8 run drubbing he took over 4 1/3 innings in his first start on April 16th, he has performed to the tune of a 5-2 record with a 3.09 ERA.

D.J. Houlton has returned to his 2009 form after a rough campaign in 2010. The 5.70 ERA seems to be nothing but a memory as he is among the league leaders in ERA (1.84) and leads his team in wins (7), innings pitched (63 2/3), and shutouts (2).

20-year old Hiroki Yamada has shored up the back of the rotation nicely. He has already surpassed his innings pitched total from last year and has cut his walks in half, his runs allowed by 60% and dropped his ERA over 2.5 runs, all while maintaining his strikeout rate.

Even Sho Iwasaki has come out of nowhere to provide spot starts, so far going 1-1 with a 2.66 ERA in four starts.

All of this has added up to a stellar 2.12 team ERA. Though not to mitigate the importance of the contributions that players like Seiichi Uchikawa, Nobuhiro Matsuda, and others have made on the offensive side of the game this season, it’s been all about the pitching.

Yes, the new ball has been a factor in shaping these numbers. But the retooling of Softbank’s rotation has been nothing short of astounding. Just check their record.

Continue reading...

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Game Report: Ogasawara Reaches 2,000 Hits

» 05 May 2011 » In npb » 3 Comments

Summary: Hanshin defeated Yomiuri 2-1, but Michihiro Ogasawara reached his milestone.

This game had quite a few juicy storylines coming in. The Giants’ rookie Hirokazu Sawamura made his Tokyo Dome debut, and “Guts” Ogasawara was one hit away from 2,000 for his career. 45,313 people were on hand at Tokyo Dome to perhaps witness history.

Sawamura, selected out of Chuo University last autumn, seemed to get off to a rocky start. The first two batters he faced made solid contact. Matt Murton lined a ball to third base for an out, and Keiichi Hirano ripped a single into right field.

According to the broadcast I was watching, in the first inning Sawamura basically threw fastballs and what was described a forkball. If their graphic was right, he didn’t throw another one until several innings later. Nevertheless, he hit 150 kmph at least twice that I saw but was wild, especially to third hitter Takashi Toritani. He did manage to reign in his control and strike out Takahiro Arai and Craig Brazell to escape the jam.

If the crowd was hoping to see hit number 2,000 from Ogasawara in the first inning, they were disappointed. He popped up on the infield for the third out.

Sawamura had an easy second frame and it looked like Yomiuri might open the scoring in their half of the inning. Alex Ramirez had the Giants’ first hit of the day, followed by a seeing eye single up the middle from Hisayoshi Chono. But two outs and an intentional pass later Iwata was left facing his counterpart whom he easily struck out.

In the third inning, Hirano collected his second hit of what would become a very good game for him. Nothing came of it for Hanshin, just as nothing came of Ogasawara’s second chance at history in the bottom half. He K’ed on a check swing called strike three.

Yomiuri broke the stalemate on the scoreboard in the 4th when Ramirez absolutely destroyed a pitch from Iwata into the left field stands. The ball was a no-doubter, landing close to the top of the bleachers filled with Tigers fans and very near the aisle that surrounds the seats. It was a solo shot and Rami’s 6th of the season.

Of note, Hanshin again chose to semi-intentionally walk (after 3 balls) the eighth hitter Ken Kato to face Sawamura.

The 5th inning was Sawamura’s hardest working frame of the day. Shunsuke Fujikawa led off with a double, but Iwata was unable to move him over with a failed bunt attempt. When Murton was retired it looked as if Sawamura would escape unscathed, but the pesky Hirano drove in Shunsuke with his 3rd hit of the day. The game was tied at 1-1, with the Tigers threatening for more.

Perhaps he was rattled, after a botched pickoff attempt allowed Shunsuke to move up to second base. Toritani and Arai walked, but Sawamura regained his composure and retired Brazell to end the inning.

The thing that most impressed me about Sawamura in that spot was his fearless approach that he took with the large American, choosing to go right after him. That speaks well for Sawamura’s future.

Ogasawara was stuck on 1,999 hits as he hit into a double play for try number three. Lefties have really baffled him all series long.

In the top of the 6th, Sawamura made a glaring mistake to Kenji Johjima, hanging a breaking pitch right over the plate. Johjima taught the youngster a lesson by promptly slamming it into the seats in left to give Hanshin a 2-1 lead. It was Johjima’s 2nd homer of the year.

Of little consolation, Sawamura retired Hirano for the first time of the day later that inning. Hirano finished with a 4 for 5 day at the plate.

When Toritani singled in the Hanshin 7th, it signaled the end of Sawamura’s day. Sawamura’s final line was 6.1 IP, 111 pitches, 8 H, 5 K, 4 BB, 2 ER. It’s hard to call it a good outing considering the hit and walks number, including a few glaring mistakes (the pickoff throw and Johjima’s HR), but I’d call it a solid game. Especially for someone with such little NPB experience under his belt.

Only a close play at the plate (and perhaps and ill-advised coaching decision at third base) prevented the score from becoming 3-1. Brazell knocked a double into right field off of new pitcher Yasunari Takagi, but Arai missed home plate on a tumbling slide and was tagged out.

At Lucky 7 time, it was still 2-1 Tigers.

Fast forward to the bottom of the 8th, when the moment most of the crowd had been waiting for finally happened. With one out and right-hander Hiroyuki Kobabyashi in the game, Guts smashed a 1-2 pitch past the reliever’s head and into center for hit number 2,000. Flowers, of course, were presented and the game continued on with little delay.

A Chono walk later in the inning provided the Giants with a two out threat, but Rusty Ryal was retired on strikes to end the frame.

There little delay in securing the win for the visitors on this day, as Kyuji Fujikawa slammed the door on the Giants in the 9th with two quick outs, a hit batsman, and a Sakamoto fly out to right caught by a sliding Murton.

Continue reading...

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Slow Starts at the Plate

» 28 April 2011 » In npb » 2 Comments

Nobody wants to start a new season off on the wrong foot, but it happens every year. Even though most teams have only played around twelve or so games, below are some batters who haven’t gotten out of the gate quickly in 2011. Pitchers (especially starters) haven’t had that many appearances yet; we’ll track them in a separate column later on.

(Note: stats current as of April 27 games)

Michihiro Ogasawara (Yomiuri Giants): His early slash line (AVG/OBP/SLG) reads .128/.209/.154, and Guts has struck out 11 times with only five hits in 30 at-bats. He has tallied only a single extra base hit this season (a double), scored only 2 runs, and has 1 RBI on his ledger. Is age (37) catching up to the normally consistent hitter?

Kazuhiro Wada (Chunichi Dragons): Last year’s CL MVP is at .143/.326/.171 so far.  His 5-for-35 is poor, but his 10 walks are keeping his OBP respectable. He has only struck out 3 times, so he still has good pitch recognition. Like Ogasawara, he’s getting up there in years (38), so age may again be a factor. If you want to see someone move slowly in the outfield, he’s your guy. At the plate, however, I’d expect him to break out soon.

Rusty Ryal (Yomiuri Giants): Currently at .161/.188/.194. The newcomer has whiffed 13 times, gone hitless with men in scoring position, and earned a single walk. We’ll soon see if he’s just slow in adjusting to a new league, or is somewhat of a strikeout machine as his past numbers suggest (eight walks and 67 Ks in 222 plate appearances in 2010 at the MLB level).

Joel Guzman (Chunichi Dragons): Not to pick on the Dragons or the Giants, but here’s another new face who is off to a brutal start. .167/.186/.262 is Guzman’s early line. He leads the Central League in strikeouts (19), but is the only one of the players mentioned so far who has hit a home run (1). He’s only 26 years old, so could it be that he’s just not much of a hitter. The Dragons are the 5th franchise (US and Japan) Guzman has played for since 2006.

Yasuyuki Kataoka (Seibu Lions): Kataoka’s team is off to as slow of a start (4-8) as he is. His .146 average (.146/.226/.188) is the lowest in the Pacific League for any regular player. After last year’s .295 batting average with 59 stolen bases, I expected he would duplicate or come close to matching those results. So far, he’s off the pace. Kataoka is hitting .091 with runners in scoring position and has only swiped two bases. Not getting on base very often will have that effect.

Seung-Yeop Lee (ORIX Buffaloes): The once-feared slugger is at .163/.229/.302 over 48 plate appearances, so far. He hit .163 last season in 108 at bats with Yomiuri. Once a productive hitter known for some prodigious blasts, talk of a jump to the major leagues has all but evaporated. His 21 strikeouts are tops in NPB, and his career appears to be in serious decline. ORIX batters haven’t performed well in general to this point in the season, but Lee has been especially poor.

Continue reading...

Tags: , , , , ,

Stars of Senbatsu

» 03 April 2011 » In Koshien » 9 Comments

Tomorrow’s professional baseball stars have to come from somewhere, and in Japan more often than not a young ballplayer will cut his teeth with a top high school team. The best kokoyakyu (high school baseball) teams are featured in two annual national tournaments, known colloquially as Spring and Summer Koshien. The spring tournament, or Senbatsu, is an invitational competition involving 32 teams. This year’s champion, Tokaidai Sagami, was crowned on Sunday. Here’s a look at some of the top individual performers from the just-concluded event:

Shuuto Takajo, C, Kyushu Kokusaidai Fuzoku

Though his team fell short in the final game, Kyukou’s catcher put on one of the best hitting shows of the tournament. He batted 12-for-19 (.632) over 5 games and had a stretch of 8 consecutive hits. His talent was best on display when he batted 5-for-5 with a double against Hokkai.

Yoshinao Kamata, RHP, Kanazawa

Though his team lasted only one game, it was clear from the outset that Kamata was the best professional pitching prospect this tournament had to offer. His fastball reached 150 kph, but more importantly he has good command and movement of an excellent slider and change-up. He started out fooling batters with a terrific ability to change speeds and locate his pitches. His pitch selection was intelligent.

His defense failed him, however, and by the 5th inning seemed to either run out of gas or let frustration get the better of him. His team had very little offense as well and it all lead to a 4-0 loss in which he allowed 8 hits but struck out 11. He needs to improve his stamina, but should be an exciting player to look out for this summer.

Tokaidai Sagami hitters: Hirotsugu Satoh (C) Shunta Tanaka (IF) Tetsuya Usuda (CF), Masaru Watanabe (RF)

I’m cheating a bit on this one. I had wanted to select one player to represent how powerful this team’s offense was, and I couldn’t. The team banged out a tournament record 74 hits and outscored their final two opponents by a combined score of 22-3 (46-9 overall). These four players alone, who comprise the top of the lineup, went 21-for-42 (.500) with 11 extra base hits over just those two games! In the championship game, Watanabe also played outstanding defense, making two difficult catches in deep right field and the team ran the bases very aggressively. It made a huge difference as their offensive machine steamrolled the competition.

Takumi Miyoshi, RHP, Kyushu Kokusaidai Fuzoku

It’s hard to get through Koshien without an ace, and Kyukoku had Miyoshi to lean on. The right hander started out the tournament like gangbusters, striking out 23 batters and allowing only 12 hits over his first 18 innings pitched. As the competition became tougher, his numbers dipped, but he was still able to maintain a 3.00 ERA for the tournament despite taking a 14 hit, 6 run pounding in the final game. While he didn’t hit for much average, Miyoshi clubbed two home runs of his own.

Sho Azegami, CF, Nichidai-san

The only player to outdo Takajo in a single-game performance, Azegami’s highlight game was a 6-for-6 day in a 13-2 win over Kakogawa Kita. Over the entire tournament he batted .688 (11-for-16) for his strong Tokyo team. He knocked in 6 runs while adding 3 doubles and a triple to his ledger. Over his four game stint, it added up to a 1.000 slugging percentage. Unfortunately, his team was done in by Kyukoku in the semifinal round.

Ryoma Matsuda, RHP, Hasami

Lastly, it wouldn’t be right to conclude without mentioning the stellar individual effort of Ryoma Matsuda. He was able to stifle a traditionally strong Yokohama High School in his opening game, allowing no earned runs. He showed a similar effort in the second round, surrendering two runs (1 earned). Despite this, his team bowed out of the competition by not providing him any run support that day, and Matsuda finished the tournament 1-1 with a 0.50 ERA.

** I would like to thank my friends Edwin Dizon (who can be found on Twitter as @RealEdwinDizon) and Shin for their input and insight during these past two weeks. I could not have compiled this list without their help.

A special thank you goes to Michael Westbay for once again providing all the Koshien fans a free online space to interact, watch, chat, and learn together during Senbatsu.

Continue reading...

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Spring Koshien Begins Today

» 22 March 2011 » In Koshien » 8 Comments

In an attempt to return to some degree of normalcy, 83rd Spring Koshien (Senbatsu) will begin today.

While NPB is still sorting out their issues and starting dates, the 32 team high school invitational tournament will begin Wednesday morning as scheduled.

If you’ve followed Japanese baseball for any length of time, you know that the two major annual high school tournaments are breeding grounds for the NPB stars of tomorrow. The games are followed closely not only by passionate fans and alums, but pro scouts as well.

Games can normally be watched for free online here. If you need rosters, scheduled match-ups, or game times in either Japanese or English, the Kokoyakyu blog is an excellent source. Game recaps and analysis are also provided.

Pick a team and let the games begin!

Continue reading...

Tags: , , ,

Offseason Changes: Nippon Ham Fighters

» 06 February 2011 » In npb » 8 Comments

Coming: Wirfin Obispo, Yuki Saito, Micah Hoffpauir, Kenta Matsusaka, Tomohisa Nemoto

Going: Hichori Morimoto, Hideki Sunaga, Toshimasa Konta, Yoshinori Tateyama, Takayuki Takaguchi, Kazunori Yamamoto, Buddy Carlyle, Tomochika Tsuboi

Staying: Yu Darvish, Kazuhito Tadano, Kensuke Tanaka

Summary: Did anyone else hear that Yuki Saito is on his way to Hokkaido? Yes? Believe it or not, there was news concerning other members of the Nippon Ham Fighters this winter. While the Fighters welcomed two new foreign players this offseason, said goodbye to one, and saw a fan favorite slip away, the most anxiety surrounded the fate of their ace.

Despite some ominous sounding tweets from Yu Darvish saying that his “situation had changed,” it hadn’t from a baseball standpoint. The Fighters’ ace and most important player is staying in Sapporo for at least one more season. He reeled in a JPY 500m contract, NPB’s top salary, as we welcomed in 2011. Carrying the load behind him will be Bobby Keppel and Masaru Takeda, who make up the top of a stingy staff that was arguably the best in Japan in 2010.

The back of the rotation faces some uncertainty, though, as Hirotoshi Masui comes into spring camp proclaiming that he wants to be the #4 starter. Throw newcomer Wirfin Obispo and incumbent Tomoya Yagi into the mix along with perhaps Saito and some other worthy candidates, and you have a full-on battle. We’ll have to see how it shakes out.

One name who won’t be in the mix this year is Buddy Carlyle. The man who was once traded for Marc Kroon in America finds himself back in the States… along with Kroon, as fate would have it. Joining them on the other side of the ocean will be Yoshinori Tateyama, who skipped town as a free agent to join the Texas Rangers.

Lovable goofball Hichori Morimoto took his talents south to Yokohama. It’ll be strange for a while seeing him donning a blue and white uniform. Coming into the lineup to hopefully supply more pop will be self described “doubles hitter” Micah Hoffpauir. The left-handed veteran of the Chicago Cubs system will presumably play first base; he’ll try to match or surpass the 22 home runs he hit at AAA last year.

In my assessment, despite having a power starved lineup, their pitching should get them into the playoffs. They nearly made it wast year, being edged out by 1/2 game in a frantic scramble. They need Hoffpauir’s bat to be what they hope it is, and could really use a big contribution from Sho Nakata, in what could be a make-or-break year for him. Players like Atsunori Inaba, Makoto Kaneko and Tomohiro Nioka aren’t getting any younger, and 2011 may be their last chance (and Darvish’s) to bring Hokkaido another title. While I don’t see them finishing atop the Pacific League, I think a playoff spot is theirs to lose.

Continue reading...

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Offseason Changes: Chunichi Dragons

» 02 February 2011 » In npb » 6 Comments

Coming: Felix Carrasco, Joel Guzman, Takahiro Saeki, Tatsuo Kinoshita, Keisuke Mizuta

Going: Edward Valdez, Dionys Cesar, Ryota Arai

Staying: Wei-Yin Chen, Maximo Nelson, Kazuhiro Wada

Summary: When something works, stick with it. Though they did capture the Central League flag last season, Chunichi had the weakest offense in the league save for the BayStars. Let’s also remember that their margin over the other league contenders was a single game in the standings. But other than making a few cosmetic changes, the Dragons seem content to continue relying on quality pitching, a solid defense, and their mid-lineup hitters to put them on top again.

First, the pitching. The Dragons pitching staff had by far the lowest ERA in the CL last year, recording a 3.29 for the season. They allowed only 521 runs, nearly 100 better than their closest competitors. Japan’s best closer, Hitoki Iwase, will anchor the Nagoya side’s bullpen for a 13th season. Barring injury, numbers similar to last year’s 42 saves and 2.25 ERA are as close to a sure thing that the Dragons have. Working forward, Takuya Asao will again be an important cog in the bullpen, and expect Masafumi Hirai, Akinobu Shimizu, and Akifumi Takahashi to be leaned on for innings and appearances.

With 210 wins and Kimiyasu Kudoh idle, Masa Yamamoto takes the reigns as NPB’s active wins leader. He added 5 more in 2010, and will likely add a similar amount in 2011. But it was Wei-Ying Chen who led the staff in innings pitched, wins, and ERA last season. Expect him to be at the forefront of a very good corps again this season. Of note, the Dragons will need to find a replacement for starter Kazuki Yoshimi early on, as the righty had off-season elbow surgery and won’t be ready by Opening Day.

On the offensive side of the ball, the Dragons brought in Felix Carrasco and Joel Guzman from the American minor leagues to add offensive depth. Dionys Cesar didn’t get the job done and was let go. Make no mistake, though, it’s still Tony Blanco, Masahiko Morino, and Kazuhiro Wada who make up the core of a team that doesn’t get around the bases too quickly. Masahiro Araki is the only real stolen base threat on the squad. It remains to be seen if that core can perform to their 2010 level, and particularly if age will begin to catch up with Wada. He’ll turn 39 in June.

Manager and newly-minted Hall of Famer Hiromitsu Ochiai has reminded his team that they can be the first Dragons teams to ever win back-to-back pennants. With stiff competition from the Giants and Tigers, it should be another season long dogfight. Even if they don’t repeat as league champs, expect the Dragons to remain in the A Class for 2011 at a minimum.

Continue reading...

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,