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THE HOT CORNER: At last, Giants learn how to save

by Jim Allen (Dec 10, 2009)

The custom of using quality pitchers as relief specialists has been accepted for decades. Yet, the idea that a pitcher is supposed to finish his starts still burns brightly in the hearts of Japan's baseball men.

Twenty-five years ago, most starting pitchers were doomed to throw out their arms in the pursuit of complete games because that was what was expected. It was as if managers believed pennants were won by pitching quality and the only measure of that quality was complete games.

Fortunately, those days are no longer with us. Even the media's crankiest representatives now understand that four innings of competent relief in a victory is preferable to leaving a starter in too long in a loss.

Baseball people love to say, "Results are everything." Unfortunately, one is just as likely to hear that from a manager who thinks the sacrifice bunt is an optimal tactic when trailing by five runs in the sixth.

In regards to the pitching paradigm shift, the apex--or nadir if you prefer--came on Nov. 1, 2007. That night, Daisuke Yamai retired the first 24 batters he faced before taking a seat so closer Hitoki Iwase could finish Game 5 of the Japan Series and clinch the championship with a one-run save.

Instead of giving Yamai the chance to become the legend of the fall, Chunichi manager Hiromitsu Ochiai, who acts as if he genuinely believes results are all that matter, went for the jugular.

At the other end of the spectrum are the Yomiuri Giants. The team that is pro yakyu's high temple of orthodoxy has struggled to adapt to this shift.

Since Tetsuharu Kawakami stepped down as manager in 1974, the Giants have not developed a bullpen closer who has been reliable for much more than a season. Considering their lack of success in this area, one can only assume it has not been a high priority in Yomiuri Land.

Tatsunori Hara is now a big hit in his second stint as Giants skipper, winning three Central League titles in four seasons. His first term, however, ended largely because his bullpen collapsed in 2003.

"You can't win without a closer," he told The Hot Corner during that summer's All-Star break.

Hara supported his hypothesis by running the suddenly ineffective Junichi Kawahara out to the mound over and over until Yomiuri's season unraveled. In September, with daily media reports that the team's owner would fire him if he lost another crucial game, Hara announced he would quit at the end of the season.

Some people might have been able to fix the problem, but at that time, Hara wasn't one of them. In the past three seasons, however, Hara has had a crackerjack relief crew.

In 2007, he forced rehabilitating ace Koji Uehara to work out of the pen, and the right-hander saved 32 games, breaking Hiroshi Ishige's 14-year-old team record of 30. Last year, Marc Kroon saved 42. Although he saved just 27 games this past season, it made him the first Yomiuri pitcher with two 20-save seasons.

Of course, Kroon was a finished product before the Giants signed him away from Yokohama, where he saved 84 games over three seasons.

Although two of Hara's best relievers, Daisuke Ochi and Tetsuya Yamaguchi, came up through the system, the bulk of his bullpen grew up elsewhere. In addition to Kroon, Hara now has a trio of former PL saves leaders: Kiyoshi Toyoda, Micheal Nakamura and Masahide Kobayashi.

In his recent run, Hara's greatest success has been turning around the Giants' talent development. The farm system withered after 1993, when Yomiuri forced other clubs to accept free agency so veteran stars would be free to join the Giants. The club's focus switched to acquisition--getting the biggest name veterans and amateurs available.

The team, however, got old and slow as lower-level draft picks rotted their careers away on the farm team.

Hara, though, has pumped fresh talent into the club, making the squad younger, faster and more dynamic. Yet when it comes to a reliable, homegrown relief ace, the skipper has gotten nowhere.

But don't worry, Giants fans. There's always the tried--if not always true--method of getting the player you need: Just take someone else's.


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