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John E. Gibson

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HARD DRIVES: Dragons always seem up in arms

by John E. Gibson (May 26, 2010)

Strong-armed tactics have helped the Chunichi Dragons contend in the Central League for years.

Certainly having former pitchers as managers in the past has helped emphasize the importance of run prevention, but under seventh-year skipper Hiromitsu Ochiai--an offensive phenomenon during his playing days--the Dragons still have finished with the CL's best ERA twice.

The Dragons have had the third-best team ERA three times in the Ochiai Era, including in 2007 when they won the Japan Series. Despite losing ace Kenshin Kawakami a season and a half ago, they keep finding ways to keep their mound men effective. They're second-best in ERA in the CL through Monday.

Without high-priced free agents or media-hyped rookies such as the Saitama Seibu Lions' Yusei Kikuchi, the No. 1 draft pick who is still struggling on the farm, Chunichi each year shuttles out virtual no-names who always seem to have the Dragons up in the arms race.

"That's because we season them as long as we can in the minors before we bring them up," said longtime pitching coach Shigekazu Mori, given the title of head coach this season.

"The process is thorough. Before they come up to the first team, there's a lot they have to learn," Mori told Hard Drives last week at Seibu Dome.

Pitching and defense are what most teams claim as the pillars of their foundation. Mori said the Dragons polish their young hurlers so they can shine when they get their big chance on the diamond.

"Before they get here, there are numerous things we make them to do," Mori said. "They have to learn the slide step, they have to learn pick-off moves and fielding. If they can't do all of those things, we don't put them out there."

Hits, walks and runs allowed--or prevented--are a result of focusing on the tiniest of details of the game, but the biggest stat is the number in the win column.

And strong starting pitching is a must for teams with thoughts of standing toe-to-toe with the potent lineup of the Yomiuri Giants, the three-peat CL champions.

The Dragons, whose team ERA has been higher than 3.86 only once since 2004, often seem to have an unknown hurler step up and contribute.

In 2006 it was right-hander Mitsuru Sato, who went 9-4--winning his first eight decisions. In 2007, righty Kenichi Nakata came up with a career-best 14-win season.

Kazuki Yoshimi, now their ace, was the man in 2008, notching 10 wins. Last year, Yudai Kawai came out of nowhere to go 11-5, becoming the third CL pitcher to win 11 consecutive decisions to open a season.

The latest Dragon to emerge is righty Soma Yamauchi (2-1), in his third year out of Meiji University.

The Aichi Prefecture native, who made four appearances in 2008 and just one last season, doesn't have the victories to show for it, but he has been keeping the Dragons in games.

They are 3-3 when he pitches and Yamauchi has four quality starts.

"His pitching was not really the issue," Mori said about Yamauchi, who spent most of his first two seasons on the farm.

"He had to deal with other aspects of pitching and that's why he was sent back to the farm. Defensively, he was awful, and because of that has been on the farm for a long time.

"But this year he has come up after the start of the season and earned a spot in the rotation. And the reason he's having success is because the other aspects of pitching, which might have caused him to melt down last year, aren't affecting him anymore. That means he can just concentrate on throwing the ball."

Yamauchi has a 2.06 ERA, and opponents are batting .194 against him. His WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched) is 1.20.

"We have expectations for any pitcher who comes up from the farm," said 22-year veteran catcher Motonobu Tanishige. "We believe they can perform. He's got a lot of movement on his pitches and that's the best thing going for him."

Mori wasn't that kind. He said Yamauchi, who has 18 strikeouts but a team-high 18 walks, is effectively wild.

"His pitches are all over the place. But that's what works for him."

Well-armed and dangerous. That's exactly how the Dragons like to be.


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