It's been years since we've had to refer to Chiba Lotte, for any length of time, as the last-place Marines. Even when they were playing poorly, the Golden Eagles or Buffaloes could be counted on to prop up the Pacific League table.
But those days are no more. Tohoku Rakuten is extremely efficient through the first half of its batting order and has had reliable starting pitching. Orix is playing improved defense and has discovered that a large number of its young pitchers are more than simply useful.
It isn't the improved competition that has left the Marines knocking around in the cellar, but rather their pitching and defensive shortcomings.
Two weeks ago against Hanshin, the Marines' pitching couldn't hold big leads. True, the Tigers are resilient, but when you score six runs in the first inning, that game has no business being close.
Hanshin's starting pitchers threw first-inning box cars over the weekend, but the Tigers stayed in each game because the Marines pitching simply could not put them away. The Central League leaders were swept in the series, but it was dicey.
The loss of the late-inning bullpen trio manager Bobby Valentine inherited in 2004 is perhaps the easiest explanation--but not the best one. Closer Masahide Kobayashi and right-handed setup man Yasuhiko Yabuta went to the majors as free agents, while lefty setup man Soichiro Fujita was released. The trio, however, was fairly vulnerable in 2007. As a group, they allowed 68 runs in 125-2/3 innings a year ago with a 4.30 ERA.
This year's relief corps is not getting many saves, but they have not been markedly worse than the guys they replaced. After the second straight near miss against the Tigers, Valentine said his bullpen was maturing and would be better.
While the relief has been less than reliable, the skipper said Sunday that the starting pitching has been the big issue.
An obvious indicator of a problem came on May 18, when ace Naoyuki Shimizu allowed six runs in 6-1/3 innings in a home loss to Orix. Shimizu walked three batters, lifting the Marines' walks total to 135 through 47 games. That's more than half last year's superb total 265.
The No. 1 problem has been Hiroyuki Kobayashi, who is 2-8 and mired in the worst season of his career after going 35-16 over the past three. Yasutomo Kubo, the 2005 rookie of the year, also failed as a starter, going 1-3 in five abominable games.
The rest of the rotation has been nearly as good as it was the past couple of years, while Yoshihisa Naruse's fall from grace is less dramatic than it looks.
The lefty went 16-1 last season with the league's best ERA. Naruse has issued a few more walks this season and has given up home runs 63 percent more often, but the biggest reason for being 4-4 through 13 games instead of 7-1--as he was a year ago at this stage--is worse luck. Last year, the Marines scored 5.29 per game in Naruse's starts; this year the average is 3.46--the lowest figure for any Lotte starter.
As to why the pitching has fallen on hard times, Valentine suspects the club's catching injuries figure into the equation. The two men who have caught 95 percent of the team's games since Valentine returned in 2004, Tomoya Satozaki and Tasuku Hashimoto, have both missed large chunks of the season. When neither was available from May 11-24, Takeshi Kanazawa played his first PL games and the Marines went 4-7 with a 5.16 ERA.
"We've had four different catchers this year," Valentine said. "Guys come up, they don't know how we do things up here."
As pitchers frequently failed to establish a rhythm, they worked deeper into counts, balls have been hit harder and the team's normally sharp fielding has been anything but.
"It hasn't been crisp, because they are out there more than they are used to," said Valentine, who said the fielders' rhythm had been thrown off as much as the pitchers'.
Last year, the Marines walked fewer batters per inning than any Japanese team since 1962. Satozaki, who was named captain prior to the season and who caught most of those games, is now back behind the plate. If Hashimoto joins him soon and swings as sweetly as he did in April, things could suddenly be right again in Chiba.