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THE HOT CORNER: Tono makes most of his chances

by Jim Allen (Jul 8, 2010)

Often there is only one element of a player's game that's holding him back. For example, more stars than you can count will tell you one turning point came when they really, truly believed in their physical ability.

For Akinori Iwamura, whose erratic fielding had delayed his becoming the Yakult Swallows regular at third base, the key was winning his first Golden Glove in 2000.

"When I won the Golden Glove, whether I was really deserving or not, I gained the confidence I needed," he said a few years ago.

Iwamura went on to win five more of the trophies before moving to the major leagues as a second baseman.

When southpaw Tomoya Yagi joined the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters in 2006, he was gun shy.

After realizing the pitches that got corporate leaguers out were also effective in the zone against professionals he won the Pacific League's Rookie of the Year Award, going 12-8 for the Japan Series champs with 2.48 ERA.

For Yomiuri Giants pitcher Shun Tono, the missing element may have been his attitude.

Tono, who won his league-leading 11th game on Sunday, said command has been the principal difference from a year ago, when he went 8-8 in his first full season as a starter.

"This year, I've been able to get strikes with my curve and slider," he told The Hot Corner on Friday. "That's perhaps the big reason things have come together."

Although Tono's drop curve may be better--his hook has replaced the forkball as his No. 3 pitch--his slider was effective last year.

What does appear to be different has been his approach. This season, Tono has shown less fear of pitching in the zone, a departure from a year ago.

In the spring of 2009, Giants manager Tatsunori Hara stuck Tono, then 22, in the starting rotation. At the time, the skipper cited the youngster's combativeness as a key factor in his decision.

For much of that season, however, Hara could only grit his teeth when the youngster would either shy away from contact or find ways to mess up.

In his first season as a starter, Tono posted a solid 3.17 ERA in 153-1/3 innings, but he also issued 57 walks, while surrendering 18 home runs and a whopping 31 doubles.

Not always willing to go after batters, Tono would often fall behind in counts and get hit hard.

Tono's 2010 season in the rotation started with a loss. In his second start on April 4 in Hiroshima, Tono received a three-run lead but worked carelessly until Hara made a rare visit to put the right-hander on course.

The pitcher had begun the game on a poor note. After Eishin Soyogi reached with one out in the first, Tono ignored him, and the speedster stole second with ease. After Tono's teammates gave him a 5-2 lead in the fourth, he appeared way too casual for Hara's liking.

Tono went 3-0 on the leadoff batter, and Hara came to the mound. The skipper informed him that a walk would mean an early shower. Tono turned things around by recording a 1-2-3 inning and didn't leave the game until he had allowed three runs over seven innings.

It may have been the key to his season.

"I was entirely at fault," he said of the game in Hiroshima. "I was doing things you can't do. [In the first inning] I wasn't thinking about the runner, didn't throw over, walked the next batter. I was not taking care of the basics."

His victory over the Carp was the start of a seven-start winning streak in which Tono lowered his ERA to 1.74. While he has been more alert on the mound, he has also worked more aggressively. He's actually giving up hits more often, but the walks and extra-base hits are way down, an indication he is putting better pitches in the zone.

Of course, no talk of Tono is complete unless one notes the offensive support he's received: 98 runs scored in his 15 starts.

After Sunday's victory, Tono, who has been named to the CL All-Star squad, didn't forget who made his gaudy 11-2 record possible.

"I want to thank the hitters for getting me these wins," he said.

This is big, because as run support grows, pitchers' ERAs tend to decline. The extra runs have given Tono room to grow and he is making the most of it.


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