The Yokohama BayStars have escaped the cellar for the time being and are playing better than they did a year ago, when they were the worst team in the country.
The BayStars entered this weekend's series against the Tokyo Yakult Swallows at Jingu Stadium in fourth place, having won four of their last five games, including two over the Swallows a week ago in Yokohama.
Despite a sluggish start from star slugger Shuichi Murata, the BayStars' offense has been the most improved aspect of the team under new skipper Takao Obana.
"The offense has improved, but we haven't scratched the surface," head coach Makoto Shimada told The Daily Yomiuri on Friday. "Murata is not himself at the plate, and [outfielder Yuki] Yoshimura isn't hitting, either.
"When they start hitting, we'll have something."
Murata, who started Friday's game against Yakult batting .203 with four homers, said this year has been a mystery for him.
"I was hitting .400 in the preseason. When the season started, nothing," he said. "You just keep at it and know things will fall into place."
The two-time Central League home run champ admitted there was less pressure on him to return to form, because the team was scoring runs despite all his outs in the middle of the lineup.
"It's a lot different than it has been in the past," Murata said. "It's a little easier because we're playing better."
The BayStars added the proven bat of Terrmel Sledge, who is coming off two solid seasons with the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters.
Sledge has reached base at a .345 clip with a team-leading .510 slugging average, while Yokohama has also gotten a lot of offense from former major leaguer Jose Castillo.
The 29-year-old second baseman, who hit .254 in five major league seasons, was in Taiwan last season and opened his debut season in Japan with a bang. A 2-for-4 game on April 17 lifted his average to .386. Although he has struggled to hit this past week, the 29-year-old Venezuelan seemed unfazed.
"I am comfortable [at the plate]," he said. "I'm waiting for my pitches and they will come. I'm working hard every day."
Castillo said the BayStars didn't spell out specific performance goals for him.
"I just play hard. I was in the majors, there was some decision made there and I'm in Taiwan. I liked playing in Taiwan. I like playing in Japan. It's a good team."
While it remains to be seen whether Obana's club is indeed a quality outfit, the Stars have a far different look than they had a year ago. They shook up their roster more than any other team in Japan in the offseason and haven't slowed down.
A week ago, the BayStars traded for Shotaro Ide, an unwanted reserve outfielder from the Hawks. The skipper said he expected to use Ide as a pinch-hitter, but surprised everyone by sticking the speedy Ide in the leadoff spot and playing him in center field.
The BayStars have had little to be positive about in recent years, but Shimada said despite still allowing more runs than they have scored, the club is more aggressive, more confident.
"We are on track," he said. "The fielding is better, the pitching is more aggressive, and we're not giving up. The team has great fans and they have suffered a lot. We need to give them what they deserve."
In other baseball news:
-- The Hawks completed their second trade in 10 days on Friday, when they acquired 31-year-old right-hander Takehito Kanazawa from the Orix Buffaloes for veteran reserve outfielder Hisao Arakane and switch-hitting, minor league utility man Keisuke Kaneko.