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Tuesday, June 29, 2010

SPORTS SCOPE

Streaking Fighters firing on all cylinders in Pacific League


Yu Darvish has been dominant, the pitching staff has followed his lead, and the offense is finding a way to drive in runs.

Jason Coskrey

Finally, the real Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters have come out of hiding.

Red hot since the close of the interleague season, the Fighters have climbed out of last place in the Pacific League standings for the first time since March 27, and have set their sights even higher.

"People may be thinking we're looking at third or fourth place, but we're not thinking about anything but first place," outfielder Hichori Morimoto said during his hero interview after Sunday's game against Chiba Lotte.

Improved pitching and an all-around better performance at the plate have keyed the turnaround, and the Fighters have gone on an 8-1 tear since resuming PL competition on June 18.

Nippon Ham has looked nothing like the team that, a few months ago, was struggling to string together wins and languishing at the bottom of the standings.

Those Fighters had trouble backing up quality pitching performances with decent run support, and vice versa.

When they did manage to put everything together, shoddy play out of the bullpen often kept the team out of the wins column.

In recent years when the Fighters have started slowly, the change of pace provided by the interleague schedule has helped get them back on track.

The Fighters were just 12-11-1 during interleague competition this season, but nonetheless managed to find their groove somewhere along the way.

Darvish (7-4, 1.50 ERA overall) has set the pace over the last nine games, winning both of his starts, allowing a combined two earned runs and striking out 14.

Bobby Keppel (10-1, 2.72) also has a pair of wins and Masaru Takeda (5-5, 3.09) tossed a shutout against the third-placed Fukuoka Softbank Hawks on June 22.

In the bullpen, embattled closer Hisashi Takeda has thrown three scoreless innings and recorded a pair of saves in his last three appearances.

Ryo Sakakibara has earned a pair of wins in relief, and others in the bullpen have pulled their weight as well.

The Fighters' hurlers have been far from perfect, but are being buoyed by a revived attack at the plate.

News photo
On fire: Third baseman Eiichi Koyano has driven in 18 runs over the past nine games for Hokkaido Nippon Ham. The Fighters are 8-1 over that span. KYODO PHOTO

Nippon Ham's offense is clicking on all cylinders right now, as the Fighters have outscored opponents 61-21 over the past nine games.

Third baseman Eiichi Koyano has 18 RBIs over that span, Yoshio Itoi has driven in eight, and Atsunori Inaba has knocked in seven.

PL batting leader Kensuke Tanaka has continued to streak along with a .466 on-base percentage this month, and veteran Tomohiro Nioka has provided some timely hitting.

Having finally found their groove, the challenge will be maintaining it.

The Fighters dug themselves a deep hole earlier this season and climbing out won't be easy.

The sky is the limit if they stay at or near their current level, but nine games isn't enough time to determine whether they've turned the corner for good.

For now at least, Nippon Ham is finally looking like itself again.

Whether it's a permanent change for the better, or a fleeting case of mistaken identity, will be something to watch for in the PL the rest of the way.



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