The Chiba Lotte Marines have managed to do something this spring they hadn't done since 2008: play as a team. And the results have been impressive.
The club lost its debut under new skipper Norifumi Nishimura on March 20 but quickly climbed to the top of the Pacific League standings and didn't lose two straight games until Tuesday.
A 3-2 loss on Sunday at home to Orix was followed by a close game that got away Tuesday and finished 8-2 at Tokyo Dome against the "host" Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles.
The Marines have outscored opponents by 50 runs (137-87). Their 16-7-1 record as of Tuesday was Japan's best.
The Marines went into the 2009 season with a cloud hanging over the club. In December 2008, the front office launched an 11-month civil war against outgoing manager Bobby Valentine.
Individuals last year said they were able to play through the distractions, but whatever happened on the field was overshadowed by the political strife played out in the media.
"We are playing really well. I'm working as hard as ever because I don't want to be the one who lets the team down," No. 5 hitter Shoitsu Omatsu said Sunday at Chiba Marine Stadium.
Omatsu, a .264 career hitter who has struck out twice as often as he has walked, is hitting .326 so far with 11 walks and 16 strikeouts.
"It has been a struggle, but I've been able to lay off more pitches that I used to chase," said Omatsu. "It's not just about technique. When you bat in the middle of the order with runners on base, it is extremely hard to take pitches. You want to drive runners in, but I'm trying to create opportunities for the batters behind me by taking the walks."
The results of his efforts have seen Nishimura get a PL-high 15 runs from the No. 5 spot in the order.
The Marines have additional firepower in the No. 2 spot this season in rookie Takashi Ogino and in the cleanup spot with South Korea international Kim Tae Kyun.
Kim had trouble with the Japanese strike zone at first, striking out his first six times, but has been finding his feet.
"I understood about Japanese ball before I came here, but the strike zone has been a challenge," Kim said through an interpreter.
"I wasn't prepared for some of the pitches that would be called strikes, but it's an adjustment I need to make and I've been working hard at it.
"It's not a technical adjustment with my swing but adjusting my expectation about the strike zone to match my experience here."
With Ogino, it has been the other PL teams that have had to adjust. An electrifying runner, Ogino is a threat to turn every attempted sacrifice bunt into a single, forcing infields to play in dangerously tight to defend against him.
The Marines have yet to exploit this opportunity to the fullest by asking Ogino to try and slap one through the infield in a sacrifice situation, but if he masters that tactic, the Marines offense will be even more dangerous.
In other baseball news:
--The Orix Buffaloes deactivated So Taguchi on Wednesday, who complained of pain in his upper left thigh.