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John E. Gibson

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Soft-tossing Hoashi hard to handle

by John E. Gibson (May 20, 2010)

Fireballers typically get showered with accolades and win Sawamura Awards, while soft-throwing lefties get labeled crafty before seemingly disappearing into oblivion.

Just over a quarter of the way through the season, the Saitama Seibu Lions--whose hurlers essentially cost them a playoff spot in last season's fourth-place Pacific League finish--have transformed themselves into a pitching-effective bunch.

Led by a rotation that is a combined 24-11, the Lions have the best team ERA in the league at 3.61 and only the Chiba Lotte Marines have allowed fewer runs.

"Everyone in the rotation is good and the competition within the team is fierce," said Kazuyuki Hoashi, a breaking pitch artist who is 5-2 with a PL-best 1.46 ERA and a WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched) of 0.96.

"We work hard to make each other better," Hoashi said before the Lions played the Tokyo Yakult Swallows in interleague action on Wednesday at Seibu Dome.

Righty Takayuki Kishi (7-1) has won seven straight games and has a 2.39 ERA and a 0.89 WHIP, and Hideaki Wakui, last year's Sawamura Award winner, is meeting expectations at 5-2 with a 3.41 ERA. Kazuhisa Ishii, who got the start on Wednesday, has chipped in at 4-2.

Intersquad competition is driving these four starters, who have combined for 23 of Seibu's 29 wins.

"One of my goals this season is to lead the team in at least one category: ERA, winning percentage or wins," said Hoashi, who has 40 strikeouts in 61-2/3 innings. "We figure if we compete against each other and do well, we'll have numbers that will put on par with the top pitchers in the league."

So on nights when hitters figure they've got a good chance to do some damage at the plate (i.e., not facing Wakui or Kishi), Hoashi has them slamming their bats into the bat rack and shaking their heads.

"I remember [seeing] him in Chiba the last two years and he dealt against us," said ninth-year closer Brian Sikorski, who moved to the Lions as a free agent in the offseason.

"I don't know if it's the arm angle or what. It looks like everything [he throws] cuts. It's fun to watch him pitch."

The 30-year-old Hoashi, in his 10th season, is on pace to surpass the career-high 13 wins he posted in 2005, but he joked about taking home the ERA title.

"[Nippon Ham Fighters ace Yu] Darvish is right there and he'll certainly be trying to win that," Hoashi said laughing.

The bullpen was a sore spot for Seibu last season, but Sikorski's success--he has already tied his career-high of 15 saves in Japan--has plugged that leak and given the rotation a boost.

"Those guys are really doing to the job--I don't see any problems with the bullpen," Hoashi said. "When they're steady like that, you can relax and just pitch.

"I just focus on not losing, because I hate to lose."

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Kudo fires perfect inning

Veteran lefty Kimiyasu Kudo threw a perfect and painless inning for the Lions in a farm game on Wednesday.

The 47-year-old hurler, trying to come back from arm problems, had a rough outting on May 8, when he gave up three runs on four hits in an inning.


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