As the weather has warmed up, so have the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, who have begun to make themselves heard.
Manager Marty Brown's new club got off to an unfortunate start, losing its first four games in March by a grand total of five runs, but after the weekend's games were leading the interleague standings.
A 10-4 win over the Yomiuri Giants at Tokyo Dome moved the fourth-place Eagles to within a game of .500 and 7-1/2 games back of the Pacific League-leading Saitama Seibu Lions.
The Eagles pitchers have drastically cut down on the number of walks they've issued, while their opponents have hit for much less power of late.
Brown said some of his pitchers had been "pitching away from the bat" but that had been addressed.
"All those guys have gotten better," he told The Daily Yomiuri at Tokyo Dome on Monday. "Pitching in the zone, being aggressive, that's part of it [the improvement], too.
"It's a mind set that you don't have to go to a full count and then try to go in and out of the zone, that you make quality pitches and try to get outs."
The skipper instilled some new concepts this season, principally the idea that players would be held accountable for their condition and their ability to perform between the lines.
In camp, he took pitchers, reliever Tsuyoshi Kawagishi for one, to task for throwing their arms out in the bullpen in February. Kawagishi had five saves over the previous two seasons, but has stepped up as the closer when Kazuo Fukumori was ineffective early.
"The pitchers found out that they are responsible and accountable and I held them to that," Brown said. "He [Kawagishi] is better, he's more confident in how he's getting ready and what he's doing--and his health."
The Eagles have also improved on the offensive side.
The batters have been striking out far less, while hitting the ball harder, which Brown says is largely due to his designated hitter Takeshi Yamasaki.
"Yamasaki is a notorious slow starter," said Brown, who benched the 41-year-old for the start of interleague.
Yamasaki came off the bench the following night in Hiroshima and hit a grand slam.
"I wasn't too happy," Yamasaki said. "Still, that's the manager's decision whether I play or not."
Yamasaki, who began his career in the Central League, has enjoyed the change of scenery. In his first 38 games this spring, he hit .203 with four homers and 38 strikeouts in his first 38 games. Against CL pitching, he was hitting .304 with nine homers in 18 games.
Brown said part of the problem is a spring schedule that saw Rakuten play nine preseason games--the fewest in Japan.
The improvement since the start of interleague play is, according to Brown, due to a number of things.
"I think the guys being are getting acclimated, the weather's a lot warmer," Brown said. "There are a lot of very positive things for our team.
"Our schedule early on, because of the cold, is a definite negative. We played a lot of intrasquad. We did a lot of stuff within the team, but it wasn't the same."
Tuscon calling Japan clubs
If the Rakuten organization listens to their skipper and is interested in finding more spring games, former Orix BlueWave manager Leon Lee has an answer for them: Tuscon, Ariz.
Lee, who starred for the Lotte Orions and Yakult Swallows and managed Orix in 2003, is in Japan working to lure Japan teams to Tuscon next spring for camp from Feb. 23 to March 13.
Teams that attend will be guaranteed 15 games against split squads from major league clubs in the area.