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THE HOT CORNER: Ishii shows worth in postseason

by Jim Allen (Oct 23, 2008)

Will the real Kazuhisa Ishii stand up? Was the Saitama Seibu southpaw who stomped the Fighters for seven innings in a big playoff win the real deal? Or is the real Ishii the distracted-looking man whose approach to the game seems so casual in ordinary games--the man who once pitched a game with his fly open?

Throughout his Central League career, Ishii had been a successful starter with the Yakult Swallows. With great stuff but minimum control, he was always a notch above his club in terms of wins. Over the 10 seasons Ishii threw 100 innings with the Swallows, he was 95-62 for a .605 winning percentage with a .517 club.

When Ishii gets runs, he wins.

Over the past three seasons, he has gone 17-2 in the 23 games his team has scored six-plus runs. In the 33 games his team scored three to five runs, Ishii's record was 11-8. In the 20 games his team scored one or two runs, Ishii was 2-14. It is not a dominant record, but it is a solid one.

But that's the regular season. Put Ishii in a big game and it's a different story. His win on Tuesday lifted him to 4-0 in five career postseason starts. Although Ishii let three runs score, he had a seven-run, seventh-inning lead when they came in.

In the past three seasons, Ishii has started seven games in which his club scored just one run. He is 0-6 in those games.

In his first two Japan Series starts, he allowed two runs over 13-2/3 innings and was 1-0 with a bare minimum of run support. His first Series victory was a 1-0 shutout in 1997, in which he struck out 12. In 2001, he allowed one hit in eight scoreless innings, again striking out 12 in a 7-0 victory.

In the regular season, Ishii will frustrate you but still get his share of wins. Give him the ball in the middle of October and he is a different pitcher.

"Before we pursued him as a free agent, we looked at his record in big games, in the Japan Series," Lions manager Hisanobu Watanabe said Tuesday. "We wanted that experience on our team.

"I was gambling that he understood the need to pitch a solid game."

Ishii said run support didn't enter into his thinking on Tuesday.

"Whether my guys scored two runs or 10, it wouldn't have mattered to me," he said. "Regardless of what was going on around me, I could only focus on my job.

"Our opponents had been playing very well, but that couldn't have any bearing on my performance. The only thing that mattered was how well I pitched.

"My motivation was extreme."

Big words for a guy who has shown little interest in being part of the team through much of his career.

When Ishii was with the Los Angeles Dodgers, he earned a reputation as a goof-off, according to author Robert Whiting.

"He had an apartment near the marina, and some people in the Dodgers' organization were unhappy to find out he was playing water sports or beach volleyball the night before he was supposed to pitch," Whiting said.

Despite dominant stuff, Ishii has never been a dominant pitcher except when it really matters to him--in the postseason. But until Ishii's playoff victory on Tuesday it seemed the Swallows were better off without him.

Not only did Yakult get a hunk of cash from the Lions for signing Ishii, but it also relieved Seibu of journeyman outfielder Kazuki Fukuchi as compensation.

In 2007, the switch-hitting speedster was almost exactly as valuable as Ishii. In 2008, Ishii had his worst season since going 1-5 in 1996, while Fukuchi had a career year.

The right fielder hit .320 in 131 games with nine homers, seven triples, a CL-best 42 steals, 74 runs and 61 RBIs. Fukuchi's acquisition was one of the reasons the Swallows outscored their opponents this year--something the third-place Chunichi Dragons and fourth-place Hiroshima Carp failed to do.

About the best thing one can say for Ishii's regular season is that the Lions have been worse without him. And with the regular season done and dusted, Ishii is in his element.

It's time to see if he can help the Lions collect the prize they had in mind when they signed him.


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