Even before the season started the Saitama Seibu Lions were being pricked by the proverbial thorn.
The omen came in the preseason when cleanup man Takuya Nakamura fouled a ball off his cheek and broke a bone, sidelining him for Opening Day and beyond.
Since then, the list of casualties has grown seemingly each month.
But the Lions have managed to rule the treacherous Pacific League jungle, staying atop the standings since June 5 by enduring some brutal bumps along the way.
The rotation has gaping holes in it with the loss of Takayuki Kishi, a proven postseason force and a nine-game winner who went down last month with a bad shoulder, and veteran lefty Kazuhisa Ishii, who injured his left ankle and had to have surgery.
Even all-star shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima had to miss time early on with an oblique strain. Still, the Lions went into Thursday's matchup with the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters with a three-game lead.
"I was just thinking about [all the injuries] other day," said Lions first-year import Dee Brown. "We've held the fort down, but it's tough.
"You mentioned 40-plus jacks out of your lineup [in Nakamura]. Ishii, Kishi--we're just holding the fort down right now."
Actually, the Lions are a game under .500 in July, but have battled through to win some close games.
"I've been impressed. We're winning with guys stepping up. Our lineup...at times I'll think...'Man, we're not putting it all together.' But we do what we've got to do."
Part of the reason is the depth in the organization. Unproven players such as fourth-year infielder Takuya Hara and Masahiro Abe filled in adequately in a platoon situation for Nakamura at third until the Lions recently acquired veteran Jose Fernandez to bring more pop to that spot.
Second-year outfielder Ryo Sakata, who hit two homers in a victory over the Orix Buffaloes on Sunday, has shown some power with four longballs and nine RBIs in eight games.
"That's what championship teams are made of. When people go down, people step up. So hopefully it can continue," said closer Brian Sikorski, having a career year with 24 saves before the All-Star break.
"It's a lot of young guys. They just come up and they're ready to play. It's hard to explain."
But with two quality hurlers out of the rotation, and replacements like Ryoma Nogami (1-0) and Masamitsu Hirano (0-1)--both in their second seasons--it seems only a matter of time before the league catches up, in more ways than one.
"We need Kishi, Ishii and Nakamura to come back healthy," Sikorski said. "We just need to scratch and claw our way until we get those guys back."
Nakamura returned after the broken cheek bone and played in 59 games before a bad elbow set him back, and it's unsure if he will be able to return this season. Kishi and Ishii are both expected to be back on the mound sometime next month.
Brown said a return of these star players would be the equivalent of a trade-deadline deal in the major leagues.
"Hopefully Kishi gets back healthy, maybe Ishii, and Nakamura at the end of the year--if we can hold it down and stay in first place and by September everybody gets healthy, it'd be basically like a whole new team," Brown said.
"It should be fun. I'm anxious to see what we can do when everyone's healthy."
Outfielder Hichori Morimoto, one of six players hit by pitches in Wednesday's game against the Saitama Seibu Lions at Seibu Dome, was deactivated Thursday with a broken bone in his left ring finger.
Morimoto got plunked in the first inning of a 3-2 walk-off loss and didn't return. Fighters closer Hisashi Takeda (0-5) hit two batters in the ninth to help the Lions load the bases in the ninth inning.