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HARD DRIVES: Success in eyes of Tigers

by John E. Gibson (Jun 25, 2008)

There's something twinkling in the eyes of the Tigers. Hanshin is winning at an unheard of .662 clip, and has a fat lead in the Central League race as the season crawls toward the halfway mark.

The Tigers play with confidence and fortitude, coming from behind, holding early leads and scoring as much as they need to win consistently.

Obviously, the addition of Takahiro Arai from the Hiroshima Carp in the offseason has made immediate impact, since Makoto Imaoka's bat was as useful as a toothpick last year.

Arai's contributions have been a big reason why the lineup has stabilized. Arai, third in the CL with a .331 average (.347 with runners in scoring position), has made the adjustment to batting third and the offense has flourished as a result.

But Arai isn't the only reason why the Tigers are first in the CL.

Ask those with the club about the key to its success, and the answers are as inconsistent as a wild young hurler.

"I look at my teammates and the passion of the fans and I feel like I'm just along for the ride," Arai told Hard Drives recently.

"The success is not because I joined the team and it's not about what my numbers are. Take my stats out and look--it's everyone on the team contributing.

"Last year, [Norihiro] Akahoshi was injured and couldn't play for a while and [Takashi] Toritani couldn't get it going. But this year, Akahoshi is playing well and Toritani is also playing with a lot of energy. So it's not me, it's everyone whose leading the team."

Improved starting pitching has also been a huge factor for the Tigers. Their top four starters have combined for 22 wins and the bullpen is getting some much-needed rest, a far cry from last season when those arms were dragging in the stretch drive and the Climax Series.

Pitching coach Yasuo Kubo pointed to the rotation as the key, but he didn't point to his top hurlers.

"[Yuya] Ando and [Shinobu] Fukuhara weren't really around last season," Kubo said of Ando, who worked in just eight games, while Fukuhara saw action 19 times in 2007. "If you talk extremes, it's like we got these guys as free agents," he joked of the duo, which has combined for eight wins.

"The pitchers behind them have such good ability that they don't worry about how far they go into games."

That goes for the other pitchers, too. [Scott] Atchison has done well keeping us in games and [rookie Minoru] Iwata is the biggest surprise, but the other guys are doing just about what we expect from them."

So what does one of the "JFK" bullpen trio does relievers think about the key to Hanshin's success?

"I'd have to say, by far the No. 1 thing is Arai," said lefty Jeff Williams, in his sixth season with Hanshin. "It really puts us back in balance again, which is something we had a couple of years ago when Andy [Sheets] and [Makoto] Imaoka were hitting well."

The Tigers reached the Japan Series that year and Williams said bringing in Arai has allowed other hitters to return to their safety zones.

"He's taken the pressure of some of the other guys from trying to do more than they should have," the Aussie out-maker said. "When you've got too much pressure on you, you go in the other direction a lot of times."

Run production is up and Williams said Arai's impact is felt from the plate all the way to the bullpen.

"It's a lot easier to pitch feeling like your guys are going to score runs behind you," Williams added.

"When you go out there as a starting and you feel like, 'If I give up a run, I'm going to take the loss,' it's a lot harder to pitch like that--and you can't pitch like that."

"And when we did get a lead last year, we had to get our strong bullpen in there as quick as we could."

The Tigers, who needed only 60 games to reach 40 wins, finished interleague tied for their season-best at 21 games over .500. Arai said this much winning is a new experience, but something he wants to savor.

And all of the Tigers are salivating at the prospect of getting their paws on a championship.


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