Hot-hitting Tony Blanco's a big reason why the Chunichi Dragons have caught fire and smoked the field during a sudden rise toward the top of the Central League standings.
The slugger leads the league with 30 homers and 78 RBIs, but it was the pitching staff that carried the Dragons to an eight-game winning streak in June and a nine-game run in July.
Nagoya's boys of summer entered the season without a proven ace--with the departure of Kenshin Kawakami to the Atlanta Braves--and with its bullpen in question. Takuya Asao was handed the ball on Opening Day but was soon shifted to the bullpen.
Fifth-year southpaw Yudai Kawai (11-0), who changed his name from Susumu in the offseason, has yet to lose while winning 11 straight decisions. Another lefty, Chen Wei-yin (4-2), leads the league in ERA at 1.54 and right-hander Kazuki Yoshimi (10-4) is right behind him with a 1.61 ERA.
Asao has become one of the league's premier set-up men with a league-high-tying 23 holds.
Hitoki Iwase, who recently hit the 30-save mark for the fifth straight season, anchors a pen that has been lights out for the Dragons, who trail the two-time reigning CL champion Yomiuri Giants by just 1-1/2 games.
"The reason we're in a lot of games isn't only because of our starters, it's because of our middle relievers," battery coach Shigekazu Mori told The Daily Yomiuri last week. "Our middle guys are doing a great job of keeping us in games and that has been big for us."
All the doubt about the pitching staff in the preseason had prognosticators leaving the Dragons out of the playoff picture. The Dragons have forced many to change their views, but the man handling the staff says no one on the team is surprised.
"They're all doing exactly what I thought they would," said catcher Motonobu Tanishige, in his 21st season.
"Sure, we lost Kenshin in the offseason, but that made things more interesting for me personally because it gave these young guys a chance to go out and prove themselves.
"They all had to compete against each other and now we have a lot of pitchers ready to take the next step."
"Yoshimi, Chen, Kawai--except for Iwase--none of these guys have a lot of experience. But they're doing a great job and I'm enjoying catching them. No one is doing anything we didn't expect."
When asked about Kawai's franchise record run to start the season, Tanishige backtracked. "Well, that's a little unexpected, but he competes out there.
"He's doing an excellent job getting deep into games and handing them off to the bullpen."
Said Mori: "Kawai doesn't throw very hard, so he has to go out there and battle and he's doing that. I mean, with the kind of stuff he has, it says a lot about him that he's doing what he's doing."
Kawai, who before this season had only won one game with the first team, said he can't take all the credit for his record.
"It's a product of the team working together," said the 2004 fourth-round draft pick, who didn't pin himself down with preseason goals.
"I just wanted to come in and do whatever job I was called upon to do. I wanted to just go out and throw my best each time.
"I'm getting a lot of help from the other guys," Kawai said about his winning streak. "Next time out I want to be the one to pick up my teammates."
Asao has been picking up a lot of teammates, posting 71 strikeouts in 86-2/3 innings.
Mori said the righty had his eyes on a spot in the rotation but failed to get the job done there.
"He just wanted to work one day and goof around for four or five days between starts," Mori said. "I'm glad he got knocked around and is back in the bullpen.
"He's better off throwing a lot and working almost every day."
Takahashi in conversion mode
Yomiuri Giants skipper Tatsunori Hara on Monday said the club is planning to convert outfielder Yoshinobu Takahashi to a first baseman to get him back on the first team.
Hara spoke to the 34-year-old Takahashi, who has played exclusively on the farm this season and suffers from chronic back pain, about the switch. Takahashi is scheduled to begin working out at first soon, the skipper said.