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Tuesday, April 13, 2010

SPORTS SCOPE

Improved pitching helps power Marines' surprising start


The season is young, but it's hard to dismiss what the Chiba Lotte Marines are doing.

Jason Coskrey

Lotte has run through nearly everything in its path early on, putting up the best record in baseball at 12-5-1.

News photo
Opposite ends of the spectrum: Chiba Lotte ace Yoshihisa Naruse, right, and closer Hiroyuki Kobayashi have played large roles in the Marines' surprising start to the season. KYODO PHOTO

While the Marines have kicked things into high gear at the plate — to the tune of 104 runs — pitching is the backbone of their early-season revival.

Through 18 games, Lotte's 3.50 team ERA was the lowest in Japanese baseball.

The Marines have allowed just 65 runs this season, seven fewer than the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, their closest Pacific League competitor in that category.

Their deficiencies on the mound last season helped lead to a humbling fifth-place finish.

Things seemed to have changed this year, and it starts with a more mature Yoshihisa Naruse leading the charge.

Lotte was in need of a leader on the mound with Naoyuki Shimizu traded to the Yokohama BayStars over the offseason and Hiroyuki Kobayashi shifted to the bullpen.

Naruse has answered the call in grand fashion so far.

He fired a warning shot to the rest of the Pacific League in a complete-game loss on opening day, then went at least eight innings in each of his next three starts, all victories.

Through Sunday's games, Naruse has thrown 32 1/3 innings, recording a 2.51 ERA and 28 strikeouts. Opponents are batting .205 against him and he's posted a 7.99 strikeout ratio and 0.93 WHIP.

The left-hander has led the way by setting a strong example and his teammates have fallen in step.

Third-year hurler Yuki Karakawa has kept up with Naruse in the early stages, starting the year 2-1 with a 2.35 ERA and 21 strikeouts.

Shingo Ono (2-1, 3.38) has thrown two very good games and Yuta Omine is still finding his way, but showed a lot of promise in a 10-strikeout complete-game victory over the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks on April 7.

A bullpen that was seemingly weakened by the loss of Brian Sikorski has been reinvigorated with starter-turned-closer Kobayashi thriving.

Kobayashi has three saves in five appearances and has yet to allow a run in four innings.

The players charged with delivering the lead to Kobayashi have also done their fair share of the heavy lifting.

Yasuhiko Yabuta is off to a quick start after returning from a two-year stint in the major leagues. Yabuta has a pair of holds, four strikeouts and a 0.00 ERA in 5 1/3 innings.

Reliever Bill Murphy has a 2.57 ERA and 10 strikeouts in seven innings, while Hiroki Ueno and Bryan Corey have also been solid this season.

There are 126 games left on the Marines' schedule, so it's too early to tell if they've really turned the corner. Lotte's strong start would be rendered almost meaningless should the Marines revert to their old ways.

But a rags-to-riches story has to start somewhere, and so far, the Marines are off to a fairy-tale beginning.



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