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HARD DRIVES: Orix looking pretty Buff for playoffs

by John E. Gibson (Oct 1, 2008)

The Buffaloes have shown Tuffness in more areas than meet the eye. Here they are in the Pacific League playoffs after a period of turbulence that would shake up even the most grounded of characters on "Lost."

Orix is in the upper division for the first time in nine years, and its resilience--having endured so much this year on top of the messy merger in 2004 that combined the Osaka Kintetsu Buffaloes and the Orix BlueWave--demonstrates its spirit to compete.

But '08 has been a true test. Harken back to the days of the offseason when the Orix front office played a prominent role in the baffling saga known as the non-signing of pitcher Jeremy Powell, who ended up going to the SoftBank Hawks after jotting his John Hancock on two contracts.

Let's also take a moment to recall injuries that beset the pitching staff, forcing a number of baby Buffs up onto the hill to start the season.

But the biggest form of unrest came when American skipper Terry Collins called it quits after one-plus seasons, walking away from the team following game No. 49.

Despite all that, the nervous-looking Daijiro Oishi took over on May 22 with the team in fifth place and somehow created a relaxed atmosphere that has allowed the Buffaloes to roam free.

And after floundering for a while, they trampled their share of teams in a run that took them from last place on July 21 to second place on Sept. 4. It's their best finish since a second-place run in '97, and their first postseason berth under the three-team playoff system that was instituted in 2004.

"When you go through a managerial transition during the middle of the season nine times out of 10, it's more harmful than helpful," Orix veteran Tuffy Rhodes told Hard Drives on Monday before the Buffaloes clinched second place and a PL Climax Series berth at Seibu Dome.

"But the good thing about it was that we had Oishi, who was my teammate with the Kintetsu Buffaloes in 1996 and '97 and a laidback guy.

"And he didn't put much pressure on us. It got a little easier to hit--it got a little easier to play baseball. He realized how tough the game was, and there wasn't so much pressure on the players anymore after Terry left."

Still, the Buffaloes made an amazing rise from street bum to large and in charge. The transformation was so swift, it even took some of the players by surprise.

"We were in last place and then all of a sudden, we were in second place," Rhodes said. "We really didn't think about it until we had six or seven games left in the season and they told us if we win one game, we clinch a playoff spot, and then it set in."

Rhodes pointed to the development of young pitchers such as second-year righty Satoshi Komatsu, who had seen the first-team mound eight times last season and has won 15 games this year.

"If you got good starting pitching, you've got a good chance to win, and our starting pitching has been great and that's what I think the first important turnaround for us was," Rhodes said.

"Then all of a sudden, Alex [Cabrera] got hot, and [Mitsutaka] Goto also got hot. So we started pitching and we got good hitting at the same time."

Certainly Orix took a chance on Cabrera, a Seibu castoff who was named in Senate majority leader George Mitchell's infamous report on the steroids era.

The hard-swingin' Venezuelan seemed to always tweak his back with big swings while focusing more on power numbers than wins and catching ground balls.

But Rhodes said the trick was lightening the load on his shoulders.

"We sat down and talked one time in May and I told him, "You're getting older--you're not 25, you're not 30, so why don't try a smaller bat, lengthwise?' And he used one of my bats in Yokohama one game and after that he just got the same model as mine.

"Ever since that, he's been just raking. His bat started going through the zone a lot faster and the confidence got better and he started hitting the ball hard and from May, he's just been on fire," Rhodes said about the 36-year-old big hitter.

And now, the combination of mental toughness, pitching and power has a tested Orix looking Buff for the playoffs.


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