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Tuesday, April 24, 2012

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Don't forget about us: Yuki Saito (center) has led the way as the Fighters try to emerge from the shadow of departed ace Yu Darvish. KYODO


Fighters pitchers performing at high level early in season

The cameramen set off in pursuit moments after the shutout was in the books. Just as in past seasons, the target was a handsome young Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters pitcher.

Jason Coskrey

They staked out space for themselves on the fake grass in front of the visiting dugout at Hotto Motto Field Kobe and waited, while Fighters fans prepared for a few more moments in the cool night air in order to hear their star put his performance into words.

We've seen this before, the hoopla after a Fighters gem on the mound, and it played out the way it always has. Well, until Yuki Saito, and not that other guy, emerged from the dugout.

Darvish? Who needs Yu?

For all the trials and travails it seemed the team was in for without its ace, the Fighters' pitching staff has coalesced into a unit that in the initial stages of the season hasn't missed a beat.

Saito's shutout Friday was the team's third by a single pitcher and fifth overall this season. The Fighters are the only squad in Japan yet to allow 40 runs — they've given up 38 — and their 1.65 team ERA is the lowest in NPB.

Five Fighters have made three or more starts and they are a combined 10-5 with three shutouts, four complete games and an ERA of 1.48 over 18 outings.

Before the season, lefty Masaru Takeda, 3-0 with a 1.59 ERA this year, said the team relied on Darvish, who was 93-38 with a 1.99 ERA in seven seasons with the team, too much in the past. Losing him, while a big blow, presents an opportunity for the previously overlooked members of the team to step forward.

Saito was never an afterthought, but with the club's previous superstar gone, the spotlight on the second-year pitcher is shining a little brighter.

He's responded in impressive fashion, going 3-1 with a 1.16 ERA in four starts. Saito was always going to take Darvish's place in terms of popularity and may have been the more famous of the two last season. His appeal will only grow if the wins keep coming.

Saito and Takeda have been great, but what will give this group staying power is the performance they get elsewhere in the rotation.

Currently, Mitsuo Yoshikawa is 2-1 with a 0.64 ERA; Tomoya Yagi is 1-2 with a 2.84 ERA; and Brian Wolfe is 1-1 with a 1.76 ERA. Wolfe was a 12-game winner last year, and Yoshikawa has been a breath of fresh air. The wildcard here is Yagi.

He was the Pacific League Rookie of the Year in 2006 then went 9-3 with a 2.88 ERA in 2009, before a combination of injuries and poor play led to only two wins in 2010 and 2011 combined.

Yagi has shown signs of improvement, and if he can turn himself into a productive member of the staff, it eases the burden on the rest of the group.

A team is as strong as its weakest link, and without the force of Darvish's performance causing everything to trend upward, being able to find quality starts at the fourth, fifth and sixth spots in the rotation is more important than ever for the Fighters.

Nippon Ham won't keep up this pace all season, but their start shows they're capable of coming pretty close, and that has to be a huge source of confidence going forward.

There may come a day later this year — perhaps during the dog days of summer — when the Fighters pine for Darvish. But right now, they're doing just fine on their own.

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