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Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2010

SPORTS SCOPE

Postseason pressure bringing out the best in Marines ace Naruse


Mickey Bradley and Dan Gordan's recent book, "Field of Screams," revealed that Chiba Lotte Marines ace Yoshihisa Naruse is afraid of ghosts and carries an amulet in his equipment bag to protect himself from evil spirits.

Jason Coskrey

With the way he's been pitching, the Chunichi Dragons may want to consider finding something to protect them from Naruse in Game 1 of the Japan Series, scheduled for the night before Halloween.

Catcher Tomoya Satozaki has dubbed the team the "Miracle Marines," due to their knack for come-from-behind victories and clutch performances this postseason.

Their run in the playoffs has indeed had a special feel to it, but the Marines' success can be traced back to the ghost-fearing left-hander at the front of their rotation.

Naruse has been the catalyst for his team's strong play, setting a solid example for the pitching staff and giving the Marines a chance to win each time he toes the rubber.

Naruse has made four starts this month — once when the Marines needed a win to reach the Climax Series and three in the postseason — and Lotte has won them all.

He's gotten stronger as the importance and intensity of the games has increased, going 3-0 with a 1.72 ERA over 31 1/3 innings since Oct. 1.

"Since the end of the regular season, the manager has used me in really important situations," Naruse said. "I feel that has helped my growth a lot."

Naruse won 13 games during the regular season, giving him double-digit victories in three of the last four years.

Still, he seems to always be on the fringe of the conversation when it comes to the upper echelon of hurlers, especially in the pitching-right Pacific League, home to Hokkaido Nippon Ham's Yu Darvish, Seibu's Hideaki Wakui, Tohoku Rakuten's Hisashi Iwakuma and Fukuoka Softbank's lefty duo of Toshiya Sugiuchi and Tsuyoshi Wada.

Naruse's play this month has likely changed a lot of minds and shown he's earned his place among the NPB's elite hurlers.

The Marines needed a win against the Orix Buffaloes on Oct. 1, the final day of the season, just to reach the playoffs, with Nippon Ham getting in with a Lotte loss. Manager Norifumi Nishimura turned to Naruse in that situation, and the southpaw delivered 6 1/3 solid innings, allowing three runs and striking out six in a Lotte victory.

Naruse then went toe-to-toe with Wakui in Game 1 of the PL Climax Series first stage, striking out eight over seven innings of two-run ball. His performance kept the Marines in the game long enough for the team's batters to deliver a win with some late-inning heroics.

News photo
Saving the best for last: Yoshihisa Naruse did some of his best work of the year during the Climax Series. KYODO PHOTO

He followed that with a gem in Game 1 of the final stage. Pitching on four days' rest for the first time in his career, Naruse allowed one run and struck out nine in a complete-game victory to outduel Sugiuchi and erase the automatic one-game advantage the Hawks held.

The Marines called on him again in the series' sixth and deciding game.

With a trip to the Japan Series or the end of the season dependent on the outcome, Naruse struck out six in a four-hit shutout.

He was named the PL Climax Series MVP after the series.

"I have strange feeling about being named the MVP," he said after the series. "While we played some tough games, I didn't think I deserved the MVP award."

The Marines were within a game of the Japan Series in 2007, when Naruse was outpitched by Darvish in the deciding game of the final stage.

He got his team over the hump this year and has been a better pitcher and more confident in the two years since that earlier disappointment.

In these playoffs, Naruse squared off with two of Japan's top hurlers in Wakui and Sugiuchi (twice) and held his own as the Marines marched on.

He'll have to dig deep again when he makes his Japan Series debut against the Dragons.

Naruse will be facing Chunichi for the first time this year.

"Now we're facing a team we didn't meet throughout the season, only in interleague," Naruse said. "So we need to make every pitch count. But being able to have this type of performance in the playoffs has certainly given me some confidence."



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