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The Hot Corner: When the world turns upside down

by Jim Allen (Jun 11, 2009)

Until June 6, the Hiroshima Carp had Japan's best ERA and the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters Japan's best offense. What in the world is going on?

After all, the Carp have ranked as high as fourth in ERA in the six-team Central League once in the last 12 years. They haven't led the league in pitching's single most informative number since 1991, the year of their last pennant.

The Fighters' rise to offensive prominence is perhaps less surprising. After all, they finished second in the Pacific League in runs scored in 2006, when they won the Japan Series, and they led Japan in runs in 2000, when the club still played in Tokyo Dome, a home run heaven--for hitters, at least.

Despite that, the Carp's pitching prowess is easy to explain: The pitchers were, as a unit, very good last season, but got zero help from their home of 52 seasons, Hiroshima Citizen's Stadium.

Last year, the Carp and their opponents homered 31 percent more often in games in Hiroshima. This year, playing at big Mazda Zoom Zoom Stadium Hiroshima, homers are 26 percent less frequent than in Carp games in other parks.

The old park boosted run totals; the new one puts the breaks on scoring. And after three seasons under manager Marty Brown, the Carp's defense is better than it has been in over a decade. Take good pitching, excellent defense and a big park--where pitchers can make mistakes above the knees and live to tell the tale--and the Carp have one of Japan's best ERAs.

When opponents bat, said Carp coach Jeff Livesy, it's gone from "Just don't hit it in the air" to "Here it is. See how far you can hit it."

The Fighters, however, are a real puzzle. Atsunori Inaba and Kensuke Tanaka? OK, we knew about them. But after those two, there was Shinji Takahashi, Terrmel Sledge, Eiichi Koyano, Makoto Kaneko, Hichori Morimoto and Shinya Tsuruoka. They're all good players who give you a lot of defense, but other than Morimoto, hit by injury in 2008, it was hard to see how the rest were going to transform the offense from flat to fantastic with the team still at Sapporo Dome.

"It's still early, ask me again in August or September," Kaneko said when quizzed about the Fighters' surprising production.

Kaneko, a career .256 hitter who led the league in batting average until recently, was hitting .341 through Tuesday.

"Players don't change their approach suddenly. I see myself as primarily a defensive player," said the Fighters' shortstop and captain. "I think most of the guys are the same."

Kaneko trotted out the old saw about there being no such thing as a defensive slump, although fans of second basemen Steve Sax and Chuck Knoblauch--who each developed a hangup about easy throws to first base--would disagree.

The difference on offense, Kaneko said, is maturity.

"If anything's changed, it's that we've grown up," he said. "When we went to the Japan Series in 2006 and 2007, we had a lot of young players. We learned a lot playing at that level and in our other games since, and I think that as a team, we have a much better sense for offensive situations, when to push it, when to play it safe."

For the past two seasons, the Fighters lived on pitching, defense and clutch hitting, playing and winning an unusually large number of games in which they scored just one or two runs.

Along with the team's big run totals, however, the Fighters have lost their old edge in low-scoring games since the club traded away closer Micheal Nakamura in the offseason and manager Masataka Nashida reorganized his bullpen.

"We used to win close games, and now we don't," Kaneko said. "If the batters have grown up, the relief pitchers still have a few issues to shake out. Hopefully, we'll get it right before too long."


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