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Sunday, July 22, 2012

BASEBALL BULLET-IN

Nomura has Carp in playoff picture


How does this grab you?

A 2012 Japan Series between the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles and the Hiroshima Toyo Carp.

Hey, it could happen.

Check the Pacific and Central League standings at the All-Star break and, while it may not be probable, there is the possibility.

The Eagles are in third place in the Pacific League, 1.5 games behind the second-place Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters and just 3.5 in back of the league-leading Chiba Lotte Marines.

The red-hot Red Helmets are in a tie for third with the Tokyo Yakult Swallows in the Central League, right at the .500 mark and 10 games behind the front-running Yomiuri Giants, and trailing the second place Chunichi Dragons by 4.5.

Third-place teams qualify for the postseason Climax Series of playoffs and a chance to advance to the Japan Series.

While Rakuten has been in the first division for a while this season and participated in the PL Climax Series in 2009 after finishing in second place, the Carp have never made the CS since its inception in the Central League in 2007, have not posted a top-three finish in 14 years and last appeared in the Japan Series in 1990.

Could this be the year the long drought ends?

Following its usual mediocre start, Hiroshima has come on with an improbable July run, winning 11 of its last 14 prior to the All-Star break.

Manager Kenjiro Nomura is excited, especially since he realized his job was on the line going into the season.

The streak is particularly surprising because several key players have been out of action with injuries. These include first baseman and cleanup hitter Kenta Kurihara, second baseman and leadoff man Akihiro Higashide, and the American slugging left fielder Nick Stavinoha.

"It is difficult to explain how we are doing so well with some of our top guys on the sideline, but I'll take it," Nomura said as the first half of the schedule was winding down.

"Kurihara is likely out for the season after undergoing elbow surgery, and Nick had knee surgery July 11, so he is gone for the year, too. Higashide has a broken finger on his throwing hand and will be gone for a month," said Nomura.

"I have had to go with younger players who are getting experience and the occasional timely hit, and they are doing OK, though there are occasional lapses on defense," he said, referring to 20-year-old third baseman Shota Dobayashi (who made the Central League All-Star team) and 22-year-old rookie second baseman Ryosuke Kikuchi, filling in for Higashide.

What has allowed the Carp to advance in the standings, though, is the recent performance of the pitching staff.

"No question about that," Nomura agreed. "Our pitching has been great; the starters and relievers. I hope it picks up again when we resume after the break."

Names of two Hiroshima right-handers appear at the top of the Central League statistics table, leading in ERA. Ace Kenta Maeda is No. 1, sporting an ERA of 1.40, along with a 9-3 won-lost record. Right behind is rookie Yusuke Nomura (no relation to the skipper) with a 1.41 ERA and a 7-3 mark.

A third starter, veteran Kan Otake, is 8-2, and his 2.29 ERA would be good enough for sixth in the league if he were not just a few innings under the minimum for listing qualification. Add it up, and you can see Maeda, Nomura and Otake have a combined W-L of 24-8.

Another guy in the rotation, U.S. hurler Bryan Bullington, is 5-9 but is 2-0 in July. Fireballer Dennis Sarfate is back in form after a stint on the Carp Western League farm team, now serving as a setup man to closer Kam Mickolio, who has racked up 11 saves.

Offensively, the Hiroshima lineup has produced just enough to support the excellent pitching, and there have been some elements of good luck and smart calls by Nomura that resulted in victories.

On July 3 at Matsuyama, the Carp appeared on the brink of defeat in a game against the Hanshin Tigers when a "furi ninge" occurred. That's where the batter swings and misses for strike three, but the catcher misses the ball, allowing the hitter to reach first base safely. Two Hiroshima runners scored on the play, turning a 3-2 defeat into a 4-3 win.

Then in a game at home on July 17, the Carp were trailing the visiting Dragons 2-0, facing Chunichi closer Hitoki Iwase in the ninth inning. Stringing together a bunch of hits, Hiroshima tied the score and loaded the bases with one out, then took home a "sayonara" victory when manager Nomura called a gutsy suicide squeeze, executed to perfection by catcher Yoshiyuki Ishihara.

The recent improvement by Hiroshima has earned Nomura a vote of confidence from team owner Hajime Matsuda, who said Wednesday he will likely retain the 45-year-old skipper for next season.

Nomura, who became the field boss in 2010, has led the team to fifth-place finishes the past two seasons.

Whether or not the Carp make it to the Climax Series in October, one thing is for sure: baseball in Hiroshima is the most exciting it has been in a long time.

Diamond Dust: Finally this week, if you have tickets for the Yomiuri Giants-Yokohama Baystars game at Tokyo Dome on Wednesday keep in mind the game starts at 7 p.m., an hour later than usual. What they are doing is putting out a feeler to see if fans will attend (at least during the summer vacation period) weekday games beginning at that time.

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Contact Wayne Graczyk at: Wayne@JapanBall.com



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