The Saitama Seibu Lions had more of a pigpen than a bullpen last season, and Brian Sikorski has been brought in to help get things cleaned up.
At 35 Sikorski, now with his fourth team in eight-plus years in Japan, isn't the shutdown, late-inning type who fires bullets and sends guys back to the dugout shaking their heads.
He does have a career 3.14 ERA with 550 strikeouts, and has only allowed 12 homers in his last 153-1/3 innings. And he has gotten more effective each season.
The right-hander is coming off his most productive season--career bests in saves with 15 and ERA at 2.19 ERA in 65-2/3 innings with the Chiba Lotte Marines. But that didn't garner him a deal in the offseason.
Sikorski ended up in Saitama because he got a take-it-or-leave-it offer from the Chiba Lotte Marines, and now he's at the back of the pen while closer Alex Graman works to get back after offseason shoulder surgery.
Graman was fantastic in 2008, when the Lions won the Japan Series, but the Lions had a mound of trouble in late-game situations in '09.
Seibu pitchers with no starts accounted for 25 of the team's 70 losses a year ago, when the Lions finished fourth in the Pacific League at .500.
"Up until Graman got hurt last year, the bullpen was pretty good. Last year, from what they said, the bullpen struggled," Sikorski told The Daily Yomiuri before Thursday night's game at Seibu Dome.
"Early in spring training, one of the goals for the pitching staff was to not walk guys, finish guys off and they made mention of some numbers. It's been the focus from day one: Don't let anybody on for nothing, and when you get ahead of a guy, put him away."
And the Lions need the Michigan native to do just that to reach the postseason. But Sikorski said he is impressed with Seibu's arms and the attitude in the pen this year.
"I don't know if they're more focused that they were last year, but guys get up when the phone rings for them and they get ready and it's showing," Sikorski said.
"So far, knock on wood, I think we've thrown the ball pretty well."
In 13 games, Seibu relievers have just one loss--Sikorski, who stumbled on March 28. He entered with the scored tied and took the loss against the Tohoku Rakuten Eagles in Sendai, but has four saves in five outings.
He credits that to last season, his first as the ninth-inning man, when he had the chance to adjust to closing out games--mostly by fault as other relievers failed.
"Last year in the second half [of the season], I got to close with Chiba and I was able to get into a little routine," said Sikorski.
Sikorski will try to keep his routine and keep things clean until Graman returns to make the pen mightier.