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John E. Gibson

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HARD DRIVES: Buffaloes deserve high times

by John E. Gibson (Mar 31, 2010)

With the Buffaloes down five runs and the count 2-0 in the eighth inning on Saturday, Orix strongman Greg LaRocca took a low pitch behind him from Brian Falkenborg of the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, an apparent payback for a hard slide earlier in the game.

LaRocca, the man Hard Drives calls "The Hit Man" because he has been plunked 100 times in his six-plus seasons in Japan, has missed too many games with injuries caused by being his own "strike zone," of sorts.

Taking no chances, LaRocca backed out of the batter's box just as Falkenborg was throwing what would be ball four, an action the Hawks hurler did not take well. The two imports chirped at each other and both benches emptied before LaRocca eventually went to first.

The 37-year-old LaRocca stood at the bag at first with a scrunchy face and a biting attitude the Buffaloes figure to play with the entire season.

The scowl, LaRocca said, was in part because the Hawks were the team that broke his right hand with a pitch last year, limiting him to 74 games.

The Hawks went on to win 6-2, the first loss for the Buffaloes after opening the season with four straight wins for the first time in 21 years.

Orix has reason to feel it's high time something positive to happen. They've been the Buffa-lows for far too long.

The offseason featured a shocking human loss and a lot of transition.

The Buffaloes started off camp with the shocking death of 24-year-old Hiroyuki Oze, an outfielder with speed and promise.

"If anything positive can come from that, it's that we're together," LaRocca said Tuesday at Tokyo Dome.

"This has affected each individual differently, and I don't speak Japanese well enough to know exactly how it affects people. But I think the one thing we can get from this is to come together as a team and do something we haven't done before, which is as a team we haven't won.

"Having that happen--it can definitely do a lot of damage. But I think if we can pull something good from it and win because of it, I think that would be really special."

The transition has included bringing in Akinobu Okada, the former Hanshin Tigers manager, to replace Daijiro Oishi as the latest skipper.

Former big leaguer So Taguchi also returned to Orix after eight seasons in the majors with the St. Louis Cardinals, Philadelphia Phillies and briefly with the Chicago Cubs. Taguchi brings the experience of two World Series titles, having won with the Cards and Phils.

"He does what he's asked, with effort, and I think that's a good example for the guys to look up to," LaRocca said of Taguchi.

Part of the transition was also the decision not to bring back slugger Tuffy Rhodes, arguably Japan's best-ever foreign player.

The 41-year-old Rhodes holds the record for most home runs (464), hits (1,792) and RBIs (1,292) by an import. But the Buffs couldn't negotiate a contract with the veteran and that left a canyon-sized hole.

"Tuffy not coming back--you can never replace Tuffy," LaRocca said. "But baseball's not just about one person.

"Of course Alex [Cabrera] is having a good start--that always helps. That's the kind of the anchor that we need--a guy hitting home runs is always good, but he can't do that every game."

Orix's Venezuelan cleanup hitter didn't have the best off-field start to the season. Cabrera sat out the opener after reportedly stating in a meeting that he wanted to play first and bat fourth. Okada took him out of the lineup, and Cabrera learned a lesson.

As the DH the next day, Cabrera hit a two-run homer to help the Buffaloes win.

Orix brought back LaRocca, who has numerous surgeries to thank for playing in 26 games in 2008, when the Buffs made a second-half run to finish in second place and reach the Pacific League Climax Series.

LaRocca said he is healthy this year and, short of getting popped by another pitch, ready to play a full season.

It's still early, but the 5-1 start has Orix on an upward trend.

"It's good to win, that's why you play the game," LaRocca said.

It could be time for the Buffa-lows to experience some highs.


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