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Friday, April 17, 2009

NPB NOTEBOOK

Fighters enjoying extra clout with bat bonanza


Staff writer

The Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters' pitching staff has looked surprisingly pedestrian early this season.

News photo
Hit parade: Eiichi Koyano and the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters are off to a torrid start at the plate so far this season. KYODO PHOTO

Even more surprising, however, is the way the Fighters' offense has rocketed out of the gates.

Following Wednesday's 11-5 win over the Orix Buffaloes, Nippon Ham leads Japanese baseball with a .329 team batting average (the Yomiuri Giants rank second at .290) and is second in the Pacific League with 15 home runs.

Those early returns are a far cry from a team that finished last in most offensive categories over the past two seasons.

The Fighters started the season by scoring one run in a 3-1 loss to the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles but haven't been held under four runs since. Nippon Ham scored at least seven runs six times in its 10 games this year.

Leading the way at the plate is shortstop Makoto Kaneko, who leads Japanese baseball with an .528 average and has two homers and 14 RBIs through Wednesday's games.

Kaneko's go-ahead three-run double in the sixth inning against Orix was his seventh double in seven games, which set a new NPB record.

Not far behind has been Eiichi Koyano, who went 4-for-4 with a homer and four RBIs in that game to up his PL-leading RBI total to 15.

Although it hasn't been just those two players setting the pace for the Fighters, who are getting contributions from all across the club.

With the exception of Tomohiro Nioka, Nippon Ham began its game against Orix with an entire starting lineup who were each batting .300 or higher.

Atsunori Inaba, who had a three-homer game earlier this season, and Terrmel Sledge have also made big contributions, matching Koyano for the team lead in home runs with three each.

Even more appetizing for offense-starved Fighters supporters is that more help could be on the way should they need it.

Highly touted youngster Sho Nakata is putting up big numbers for the Nippon Ham minor league team and could earn a spot on the ichi-gun this season.

Through Tuesday, Nakata was leading the Eastern League with six home runs and 18 RBIs, while batting .266 through 19 games.

The Fighters' also have the current minor league batting leader in Kazuya Murata, who was hitting .397 in 17 games through Tuesday.

Pitching has carried the Fighters to three playoff appearances, two PL pennants and a Japan Series title over the last three seasons.

But if the offense can continue to chip in over the course of a long season, Nippon Ham could become a force to be reckoned with in the near future.



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