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THE HOT CORNER: Carp pass season's 1st test

by Jim Allen (Apr 9, 2009)

It wasn't all speed and hustle. It just seemed that way last weekend as the upstart Hiroshima Carp overran the Yomiuri Giants at Tokyo Dome.

Marty Brown's club made three comebacks on the Central League champions' home turf. His flying fish only fell short of a sweep when they had to settle for a 12-inning tie on Sunday after leveling the score with two out in the ninth.

Three games, of course, don't mean much in the final accounting. The first weeks can't tell you what a team will look like when adversity strikes in August.

What one could see was that the Carp came well prepared and have a chance to be really good. The two biggest questions about the team from 2008 regarded the quality of the offense and fielding.

The Carp haven't had a good offense since 2001 and the defense has been suspect, but both were well executed over the weekend. The hitters still need to create more scoring opportunities, but when runners reached against the Giants, the fish became lightning-quick predators.

Brown's school came to the first day of class having done their offseason homework. The aggression should force other teams to adjust to them for a change.

In the field, too, the club showed improvement. Following a 2008 season in which defensive meltdowns cost dearly, their fielders made one clutch play after another. On Saturday, they hung in against tough lefty Tetsuya Utsumi by eliminating his run support, taking away hits and cutting down base runners.

In retrospect, what seemed like an innocuous offseason pickup, the signing of discarded veteran Takuro Ishii, may have helped Hiroshima clear a defensive hurdle.

As professional as they come, Ishii won three Golden Gloves at third before he moved to short and mastered that position as well. He, and outfielder Koichi Ogata, now a player-coach, are ideal role models for youngsters still mastering their craft.

Of course, examples alone won't make a difference without practice.

After a daring, ninth-inning double steal sparked Sunday's comeback, Brown said the play was a result of hard work under Ogata's tutelage last autumn.

It looks as if the same work ethic carried over to the defense, which looked comfortable and confident under pressure in the opening series.

So far, the Carp have played every inning expecting to be in the game at the end. If they are going to be in the pennant race at the end, the fielders will have to maintain that poise and the offense, the weakest link in the chain, will have to come into its own.

Although the Carp are not going to hit lots of home runs, they have a small core of solid hitters with decent power and a number of guys who can fly. It's not the kind of offense any fan or manager sees in his dreams, but it can work--as the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters proved when they won the Pacific League in 2006 and 2007.

At the heart of the order is first baseman Kenta Kurihara. The 27-year-old entered the season as a career .307 hitter who drives the ball well. If he has a career year, and No. 5 hitter Scott Seabol improves a bit from his 2008 debut season, the Carp might match the Fighters' 2007 offense.

Of course, unpowered flight only works with tremendous defense and pitching. The defense was there for all to see against the Giants, while the pitching has gotten gradually better for over a decade. Last year's staff, which posted a 3.78 ERA in the nation's toughest park for pitchers, was Hiroshima's best since the Carp won the CL in 1991.

Although the team has lost useful starter Ken Takahashi, the lefty was 39 last year. Instead, the Carp will go with 29-year-old workhorse Colby Lewis, 25-year-old Kan Otake, 23-year-old Junpei Shinoda, 21-year-old Yuki Saito, and 20-year-old Kenta Maeda. These five posted a combined ERA of 3.37.

Other than Lewis, they are young and should, as a group, be better. If the school's large new yard helps the pitchers pound the zone and get more balls to a quality defense, the Carp could easily lead the league in ERA.

Their opening series was just a pop quiz on the first day of a long semester, but so far, the fish have had all the answers.


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