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Saturday, June 21, 2008

NPB NOTEBOOK

Southpaw trio going the distance to help Hawks


Staff writer

Tsuyoshi Wada was pitching a complete game against the Yokohama BayStars on Sunday and there wasn't anything anyone could do about it. Not Fukuoka Softbank Hawks pitching coach Tadashi Sugimoto and not the BayStars.

News photo
Flying high: Toshiya Sugiuchi, who leads Japanese baseball in strikeouts and is tied for the lead in complete games, is one-third of a trio of lefty starters for the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks. KYODO PHOTO

"You have 35 pitches left today," was the message Wada said Sugimoto relayed to him before the seventh inning. "But we had the lead and I wanted to complete the game," Wada told reporters. "So I told Sugimoto-san, 'I need only 30 pitches to finish.' "

He nearly pulled it off, finishing off the BayStars after 32 more pitches in the 3-1 win.

It's that kind of determination that has helped the Hawks' trio of left handers — Wada, Toshiya Sugiuchi and Kenji Otonari — become a fearsome force on the mound for manager Sadaharu Oh.

The Softbank trio is a combined 20-11 with 12 complete games between them this season.

They've all seemed to hit their stride at the same time, combining to go 12-4 since May 13, the main reason the Hawks were tied with the Hanshin Tigers atop the interleague standings through Thursday.

Wada's complete-game victory was one of three in the week for the group.

Otonari went the distance in a 3-2 win over the Chunichi Dragons on the 12th, and Sugiuchi rocked the BayStars on the 14th.

It was a dominating week for Fukuoka's triple threat. Otonari struck out nine, Sugiuchi fanned 10, Wada struck out eight and the trio combined to walk three batters and allow just four runs over three games.

That represented the first time since the 2003 season the Hawks have gotten three complete-game victories in a single week.

The '03 staff did the current group one better with Sugiuchi, Nagisa Arakaki, Wada, and Hayato Terahara tossing four complete games from April 14-18.

It's the first time the feat was accomplished by three lefties in Japan since the Kintetsu Buffaloes did it in 1987.

Sugiuchi (6-4, 2.53 ERA) and Wada (7-2, 3.24) were expected to be among the league's best, while Otonari (7-5, 3.47) has helped dull the effect of injured star Kazumi Saito's absence.

Sugiuchi has been the workhorse of the group, logging 103 innings this season (Otonari, who has pitched 93 1/3 innings, is the only other Hawks hurler with at least 90). He's gone at least nine innings in five of his last six starts, earning complete-game victories in four of those contests, and is Japanese baseball's strikeout leader with 116.

In his second season, Otonari has played a bigger role for the Hawks than in his rookie campaign.

The Kyoto native, who was 2-4 in eight games last season, is 7-5 this year and has won his last four decisions.

Wada's ERA (3.23) is a little higher than in recent seasons, but the veteran seems well on his way to posting double-digit wins for the sixth consecutive year.

He did not get his first start this season until April 6 due to offseason elbow surgery. After beginning to feel pain and discomfort in his throwing elbow in 2004, he finally decided to have surgery this past offseason to correct the problem.

"I thought I could pitch with pain," he told reporters. "But when I think about the future I decided to have surgery now. I wanted to pitch in perfect condition."

The trio has been a big boost to the Fukuoka pitching staff this year. With right-handers Rick Guttormson and Jeremy Powell also in the fold, and Arakaki's possible return to the top team looming, the Hawks seem to be in a good position to make what could be Oh's final run at adding to his Japan Series title collection.

Chasing history: Closer Marc Kroon struck out all four batters he faced to secure the the Yomiuri Giants' 2-1 win over the Orix Buffaloes on Wednesday night.

The save was the 19th of what could be a season full of milestones and records for the 35-year-old pitcher.

Kroon has already broken his own record for Japanese baseball's fastest pitch this year, hitting 162 km on the radar gun while striking out Nobuhiro Matsuda in the 10th inning against the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks on June 1.

On May 26, he became the third active player to reach 100 saves, joining Chunichi's Hitoki Iwase (178), and the Giants' Kiyoshi Toyoda (152).

Katsuhiro Nagakawa of the Hiroshima Carp has since become the fourth.

His 103 saves put him within striking distance of Eddie Gaillard's mark of 120, the highest total by a foreign pitcher in NPB history.

Kroon is a more immediate threat to Koji Uehara's franchise single-season record 32 saves, which the Giants star set last season.

On a personal note, he's also within sight of his career-high mark of 31 saves, which he would surpass if he ties the Giants' single-season record this year.



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