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The Hot Corner: Sometimes it's toiugh to be a Buffalo

by Jim Allen (Jun 18, 2009)

Asked if he would make changes to shake up his troubled club, Orix Buffaloes manager Daijiro Oishi said he would if he could. But when everything seems to be going wrong, where does one start?

"It's not a matter of wanting to change or not," he said before Tuesday's 1-0 interleague victory over the BayStars in Yokohama. "I don't have a lot of options right now."

This is understandable since most of his starting pitchers get hammered regularly and his bullpen hasn't been a source of joy, either.

Oishi has trotted out 11 different starting pitchers this season, the most used in either league.

Chihiro Kaneko, who burst on the scene in August 2007, has been the lone rock in a rotation that has a 5.32 ERA. Shogo Yamamoto has pitched better of late, but positive signs for the rotation have been few and far between.

Mamoru Kishida, who was sharp in April, hasn't pitched since interleague started. Last year's Pacific League rookie of the year, Satoshi Komatsu, has been a bust. Kazuki Kondo, who also had a breakthrough season in 2008, pitched well in his first two starts but opposing batters have abused him since.

The defense, which was credible in 2008, has further been damaged by the loss of second baseman Mitsutaka Goto, who tore his right quad muscle a month ago.

Goto was added to an injury list that includes outfielder Tuffy Rhodes, broken bone in his hand, and first baseman Alex Cabrera, broken toe. While Goto was the Buffs' third-best hitter a year ago, Rhodes and Cabrera were far and away the best players in the PL.

Without these three, there is too much pressure on the pitching and defense.

It's a precarious situation, as Ryan Vogelsong will attest to after a 3-1 loss to the Tokyo Yakult Swallows on Saturday.

Makoto Shiozaki, a veteran infielder who has barely played second base since 2006, is one of two guys Oishi has used to fill in for Goto.

After a leadoff walk, Shiozaki got just one out on a double play ground ball, and the missed defensive chance set the stage for a tragic turn of events--tragic that is if, like Vogelsong, you're trying to establish yourself with a new team that's struggling.

What happened after is fairly common: A pitch that shouldn't get hit is hit, and a pitch that shouldn't be thrown is thrown. With one out and a runner on, Shinya Miyamoto hit a pitch out of the zone for a game-tying RBI double.

With two outs, a fat pitch to Ryoji Aikawa reached the seats. With just one run from the Buffaloes batters, a leadoff walk, a defensive slip and a bad pitch made the difference. Vogelsong, making his second straight start after 15 games in relief, was pulled after 67 pitches.

Was Vogelsong's game a failure? Was it something to build on? These are things the skipper will have to evaluate.

Kishida is expected back soon, as are Goto and Rhodes. Cabrera, however, may not be seen in Japan until mid-July. Because Rhodes does not count against the foreign quota due to his length of service, it won't be until Cabrera returns that Oishi will have to deactivate one foreign player.

Greg LaRocca has been a solid run producer and will play as long as he keeps that up. That leaves the jobs of Vogelsong, new right-hander Jon Leicester and veteran Jose Fernandez in jeopardy.

Fernandez, who has gotten the most playing time, is useful if he bats .260 because of his walks and extra bases. As of Tuesday, however, he was batting .234.

Working against Fernandez's chances is an increase of offense around the Orix order. Leadoff man Tomotaka Sakaguchi has tripled his walk rate, veteran outfielder Naoyuki Omura is leading the club with a .381 OBP and 23-year-old shortstop Keiji Obiki, 23, is beginning to show his offensive promise. The return of the big boppers could give Orix a top-class offense.

Because of that, Oishi's focus will largely be on his pitching. If he can sort out those who are part of the solution from those who are part of the problem, Orix could rebound and finish well. Otherwise, there is a good chance Orix will soon be looking for its eighth manager since 2002.


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