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Baby Buffalo hurlers boost Orix

by Jim Allen (Mar 26, 2008)

Orix's outlook was a bleak one last week as pitcher after pitcher was scratched from the Buffaloes starting rotation due to injury.

Two of manager Terry Collins' big rotation guys needed surgery, another starter suffered from a bad back, another tendonitis. With opening day getting closer and closer, Collins had little choice but to give the ball to pitchers with plenty of promise but little experience.

"I told them this game was about opportunities and they were going to get theirs," Collins said March 19, the day before Opening Day at Seibu Dome. "They're going to have to grow up in a hurry."

By the time 25-year-old Kazuki Kondo walked off with a win on Sunday, the Buffaloes had taken two of three from the Saitama Seibu Lions and were heading home with a winning record.

The most experienced of Collins' three starters, Chihiro Kaneko, allowed a run in seven innings in a 2-1 Opening Day victory. On Saturday, lefty Shinya Nakayama allowed four runs in six innings in a very credible performance.

Kaneko, an unknown only to those who overlooked last year's late-season heroics with Orix, was 1-3 in his career before going 6-0 in seven starts. Nakayama, who entered this season 3-3 in his career, showed plenty against the Lions.

"He pitched all right," the skipper said of Nakayama. "We didn't have a starter for next Friday, and I'd like to get him back on the mound before he has too much time to think about it."

Nakayama, who led last year's Hawaiian Winter League with six wins, may not have good velocity, but he has an excellent curve and works aggressively. Unable to throw his curve without bouncing it on Saturday, however, he was in no position to match Kazuhisa Ishii's seven shutout innings.

Nakayama got behind in counts and got beat by going after batters with his weaker pitches up in the zone.

"He'll get more chances to learn," Collins said Sunday before he sent Kondo, the least experienced of his young guns, to the mound.

Kondo, who already has quite a collection of baseball highlights to his credit, came into the game with a 1-1 career record in the Pacific League.

As a high school senior, he won the title game of the 2001 national summer high school championship at Koshien Stadium.

Last season, Kondo had the distinction of coming one batter shy of a perfect game. On May 2, in a game against the Hiroshima Carp farm club, Kondo retired the first 26 batters he faced. Unfortunately, he hit the 27th in the head and was ejected for a dangerous pitch.

"He works very aggressively. But for a while after that he didn't want to work inside," Collins said. "It took a while for him to get back to where he was."

Kondo went 0-1 in two starts for the big club but finished with a healthy 9-3 record in the Western League.

On Sunday, he was poised under pressure, pitching out of a pair of jams in a one-run game. Afterward, Kondo said his pitching was little different from a year ago.

"My pitching hasn't really changed, but I used to get carried away by the excitement of the game," he said. "I would get too worked up. In the past, I've received a lot of chances in my career only to blow them.

"It might not be the best way to put it, but I'm more carefree now. Perhaps a better explanation would be that I am more relaxed, just being myself."

Like Nakayama, Kondo is also in line for a second start of the season in the injury-hit Orix rotation.

Although the Buffaloes hitters are not swinging the bat well, it was a good weekend for Collins, who has struggled for a year to convince his bosses that his youngsters need more playing time.

"We made a commitment this year to our young players," Collins said. "Kaneko did great, Nakayama didn't pitch that badly, and Kato, we might bring him back earlier than usual."


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