Hokkaido Nippon Ham has lost some of its punch.
The razor-sharp defense and strong pitching that has exemplified the Fighters' way to three Pacific League titles the past four seasons have suddenly become mediocre.
The frequency of clutch hits and the speed on the basepaths have also slowed to a crawl.
The result: the Fighters are wallowing in last place at 5-14-1--9-1/2 games out of first place--before Friday's start of a three-game weekend set against the Saitama Seibu Lions at Seibu Dome.
The Fighters, in the midst of a three-game skid, haven't been this far below .500 in five years. Though it's April and there's no reason to panic, it's time for the 2006 Japan Series champions to get their mojo back, according to one veteran.
"We are way under .500, so the one thing we cannot do is back down," said Atsunori Inaba, in his 16th season.
"Of course we're going through a rough patch and the mood isn't great," said Inaba, hitting an uncharacteristic .255 with one home run and just four RBIs.
"There are ebbs and flows in a season, but I guess there are also years when things just don't go as you thought they would.
"But we have veteran players who know what they have to do to prepare for games. We have guys who have won championships and guys who have seen the losing side.
"You have to experience both to grow and get better."
The Fighters are coming off the experience of a three-game sweep at home at the hands of the first-place Chiba Lotte Marines. Nippon Ham's pitching staff surrendered 20 runs in the three games, pinpointing an area of concern.
Ace Yu Darvish is 2-1 and leads the league in strikeouts, but the rest of the starters are a combined 3-9. And Nippon Ham, which led the league in team ERA with numbers less than 3.50 the past three seasons, is fourth so far this year at 4.21.
Suffice to say the rotation is not what it used to be. After their top two guns, no one else has proved to be reliable. Romash Dass got the ball to open Friday's game, becoming the ninth Nippon Ham starter less than a month into season.
Another reason for the lack of run prevention is poor defense. The Fighters have committed 13 errors--accounting for 13 unearned runs--in 20 games. Nippon Ham, which produced a club-record seven Golden Gloves in 2009, allowed 25 unearned runs last year.
"Errors happen, they are a part of the game," Inaba said. "We've talked about them and we're doing what we can to deal with it.
"It is what it is. We just have to work together to overcome those mistakes."
The Fighters have one excuse for the defensive deficiencies: shortstop Makoto Kaneko, who won the Golden Glove at his position last season, has only played in three games because of ribcage injury.
"As the shortstop, he's the guy who anchors our defense," Inaba said. "What hurts most is him not being here."
"But we want to stay positive and work to improve as we go."
The Saitama Seibu Lions were forced to deactivate All-Star shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima, who hasn't improved since suffering a ribcage injury on April 10.
Nakajima, who was off to a blistering start at the plate with a .403 average and 18 RBIs in 17 games, hadn't played since Monday. He was deactivated as a precaution.